Music for the Royal Fireworks (HWV 351)
Water Music
(HWV 348-50)

Glossa GCD 921606
1 CD
full price
Recorded in 2002.
Released in 2003.

Le Concert Spirituel (on period instruments)
Conductor: Hervé Niquet

Recorded live on 27 September 2002 at L'Arsenal de Metz, France




On the back cover of this recording Glossa have included the subtitle ‘First historical version’. This is extraordinary claim is fundamentally false. For a start, what exactly constitutes a ‘historical version’? This term is fairly meaningless when it lacks adequate qualification: it could equally apply to Richter’s Giulio Cesare or Sargent’s Israel in Egypt as to Christopher Hogwood’s Messiah. Is its ‘historic’ importance therefore related to any meaningful musicological advance in our knowledge of these works? After all, the autograph of Water Music has been lost for centuries, and there is always the possibility of learning something new about the perennially popular Fireworks Music.

No, unfortunately not. This recording does nothing to advance our understanding of the complicated Water Music sources (it is highly unlikely Handel created the three suites in the shape we know them today), and neither does it provide an experience of the Fireworks Music recorded in a rainy London park amid real fireworks and general pandemonium. Indeed, who would want a genuinely authentic Fireworks Music in their living room anyway? Worse still, this is not even the first recording of the Fireworks Music to use Handel’s original wind band orchestration, despite what it claims in the booklet essay. The original wind band orchestration was recorded by Charles Mackerras decades ago, and Robert King and Trevor Pinnock have both recorded it using period instruments. In any case, the presence of strings instantly contradicts such claims for this recording, and makes it essentially the same as almost all other recordings (only, maybe, Niquet’s band is ‘bigger’). Furthermore, Niquet’s recording cannot claim to be the first recording of Handel’s original orchestration on period instruments, it does not advance our understanding of the musical text, and it does not provide a new benchmark of modern performance.

So, from the outset, we clearly have a product that is being marketed as something it simply is not. Yet this unusual recording does have some distinctive qualities: the sheer size of the unusually large orchestra is closer to what Handel may have envisaged using in the Fireworks Music, and special efforts have been made to reconstruct period instruments that allegedly recreate the temperament of those Handel might have known. A lot of fuss is made in the booklet notes about the integrity of the brass players, who do not use secretive holes to correct their intonation, nor do the horn players ‘cheat’ by inserting their hands into the bell of their instrument. All this is very admirable, but even Early Music purists may be tempted to remark ‘so what?’ Cheating to make one’s instrument sound better seems like a perfectly valid historical principle, especially if the practice avoids sloppy performances like this. While certain aspects of these performances are of genuine interest to anybody interested in the timbre of certain period instruments, I am not persuaded by Niquet’s direction: there is no elegance or shape to the dances, and little of the sophistication and rhetorical drama evident in the finest performances (e.g. John Eliot Gardiner, Trevor Pinnock, Roger Norrington, and especially Tafelmusik).

The players of Le Concert Spirituel may demonstrate commendable effort to achieve a distinctive degree of authenticity regarding their instruments, but they cannot claim to know exactly what Handel’s musicians sounded like. Indeed, Niquet’s misconceived tempos and eccentric phrasing of the actual music casts substantial aspersion upon the ‘historical’ credibility of this venture. It is very well to take such trouble over small details regarding instruments and orchestration, but that cannot make these performances sound persuasively stylish when so many speeds and textures work against the textures and melodic qualities in Handel’s music. In the Fireworks Music the brass is often painfully out of tune and charmless (‘authentic’ temperament notwithstanding), and a curious experiment turns into something of an unpleasant experience. Too often, the overall mood resembles an irate wasp trying to sting somebody. To put it bluntly, the performance is rushed, unimaginative, and characterless.

The three Water Music suites come off best in some respects, with occasionally sympathetic string playing, and attractive perky woodwinds in the ‘Country Dance’. Yet, I also have serious misgivings about the appropriateness of the Niquet’s decision to use such an enormous orchestra in the Water Music. I am tempted to surmise that if Handel had intended these Suites to be performed by such a large ensemble the barge would have rapidly sunk in the muddy Thames. This may be the biggest-scaled period instrument disc of these works yet recorded, but it is certainly not remotely near the best. Irrespective of all considerations of performance practice, Niquet’s interpretation is simply unnatural and unconvincing.

© David Vickers - June 2003

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