Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks (CD review)

Jeanne Lamon,
Tafelmusik. Tafelmusik Media TMK1011CD.

In 1749 the British Crown commissioned George Frideric
Handel (1685-1759), German born but by then long a naturalized British subject,
to provide music to accompany a huge fireworks display commemorating the Treaty
of Aix-la-Chapelle. The government held the celebration outdoors on the night
of April 21 in Green Park in an enormous wooden structure built especially for
the occasion.  Apparently, the affair
was a huge success in spite of some disappointing fireworks and a part of the
building burning down. That much we know. What we don't know is exactly what
instruments the band employed for the première performance. The autograph score
indicates 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, 9 trumpets, 9 horns, and four sets of timpani.
It doesn’t say anything about strings, a condition supported by the King's own
dictate that there be "no fidles." However, it's not that simple
because an observer on the afternoon of rehearsal wrote that he witnessed some
100 musicians in the orchestra. Surely, this would suggest that Handel had
added about 40 or so strings, against the King's wishes. Moreover, Handel's own
later editions of the score indicate strings. 

With no immediate, reliable written witnesses of that
first evening’s performance, we may never know which of the many recordings of
the Royal Fireworks Music is closest
to the historical event. Most recordings either use much-reduced forces, such
as here, or modern instruments, like Charles Mackerras's versions with full
orchestra and military band.

In any case, the Canadian-based period-instruments
ensemble Tafelmusik use a small group of players that includes strings. While the
full Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra includes six violins, two violas, two cellos,
a double bass, and about a dozen or more other players, their booklet picture
shows about sixteen people, which may be their actual complement for the Fireworks Music, I’m not sure. What is
clear is that the ensemble is quite a lot smaller than probably played on the
night of the work’s première; however, since subsequent performances in
Handel’s day saw greatly reduced forces, too, this is not an issue with the
Tafelmusik release. The present release, incidentally, is one the folks at
Tafelmusik originally issued in 1999 and are now reissuing on their own
Tafelmusik label. It’s good to have it back in the catalogue.

The Tafelmusik musicians under Ms. Lamon’s direction play
in their usual precise yet lively fashion. The speeds when moving along in the
faster sections never inch toward full-gallop mode but remain steady (and
heady) at a moderate pace. The timpani, too, make an exciting contribution.
This is no doubt one of the best performances one can buy in terms of execution
and playing, and for me it is second only to Trevor Pinnock’s recording with
the English Concert for Archiv. Still, the differences between Lamon’s version
and Pinnock’s are so close that choice may come down to a preference in sound.
Both sets offer elegant, thrilling performances.

Accompanying the Fireworks
are Handel’s Concerti a due
Cori Nos. 1-3
. Although I would have preferred hearing Tafelmusik doing
Handel’s Water Music, a coupling we
find on many competing discs, the Concerti
are fine, and, of course, immaculately performed, the two choirs of wind
instruments particularly beguiling. Handel probably used these instrumental
suites between parts of his various oratorios, yet they are by no means
throwaway pieces. The first two works are the most exuberant and extroverted,
the third one more sedate.

The recording, made at Humbercrest United Church, Toronto,
Canada in 1997, makes the ensemble sound bigger than it is, thanks to the warm,
spacious acoustic. Nevertheless, it also provides a reasonable degree of
detail, with a full, rich tone. The recording hasn’t quite the midrange
transparency or immediacy of Pinnock’s account on Archiv, but it’s close. For
the person who hasn’t already investigated the Tafelmusik recording, there is
much delight in store.


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