Handel: Water Music (SACD review)

Also, Music for the Royal Fireworks. Kevin Mallon, Aradia Ensemble. Naxos SACD 6.110115.

There was a time you couldn't find Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks on a single disc. In the old vinyl LP days the two works wouldn't fit on one record, and even in our CD age there are record companies that believe the two pieces of music are far too popular to couple together; there's more money in releasing them separately. For instance, DG is still issuing Trevor Pinnock's excellent recordings of the two works on separate albums. But times are changing, and there are any number of fine couplings of these two pieces, not the least of them this low-cost entry from Naxos, available on a standard CD or the SACD reviewed here.

Conductor Kevin Mallon's Canadian players, the Aradia Ensemble, perform on period instruments, and the Fireworks Music boasts the first-time inclusion of a transverse flute in "La Paix," a detail noted in the original manuscript but overlooked by most conductors. I doubt that anyone would notice the difference, but every new recording has to have a gimmick, something to differentiate it from the pack, and this one is more than a mere gimmick in that it works pretty effectively. (What doesn't sound too good to me is an oddball tambourine shaking away on occasion. What's that about?)

What really sets Mallon's recording apart, though, is that it's not only played on period instruments, it's fairly well recorded, it's on a Super Audio CD (and a regular CD depending on which one you want to buy), it combines both the Water Music and the Fireworks Music on the same disc, it's relatively cheap, and it's a lively interpretation. I would not, however, count it above Telarc's issue of both works with Martin Pearlman and the Boston Baroque, which Pearlman and company play marginally better and which Telarc recorded more warmly and richly. I mention this because it's also available on an SACD and for only a few dollars more.

The differences between the CD and SACD layers on this Naxos disc are discernable but not night-and-day, unless you play it in multichannel surround. Comparing the two-channel stereo layers on separate players reveals a small degree more ambient bloom around the instruments in SACD and without a doubt a slightly greater dynamic range and impact. In both cases, I found the sound a bit lean at the low end and occasionally a tad bright in the treble, while midrange accuracy was more than adequate. I'd say if you have a multichannel surround system or a superdeluxe two-channel setup and want the very best sound you can get, the Super Audio CD is probably the disc of choice; otherwise, if you have but a modest two-channel setup, the cheaper stereo-only CD would probably suffice.

Just don't forget the other great performances of one or the other of these Handel works, if you don't already own them, some paired on single discs and some on two discs, from Pinnock (DG), Pearlman (Telarc), McGegan (Harmonia Mundi), Gardiner (Philips), Mackerras (Telarc), Savall (Astree), Norrington (Virgin), the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (DG), and many more. Still, if it's SACD you're after....


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