HANDEL: Water Music HWV 348-350; Concerto grosso Op. 6, No. 11, HWV 329 – Hannoversche Hofkapelle /Anne Röhrig – Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, multichannel SACD MDG 905 1828-6 (2+2+2), 74:58 [Distr. by E1] ****:
The two works on the disc under review come from two points in Handel’s career when opera had abandoned him and he, opera. In the case of the Water Music, the cause was mismanagement of the King’s Theatre, where Handel had enjoyed his first great success in England with the opera Rinaldo in 1711. On the strength of that production, Handel became the resident composer of the theater though by 1715 the opera company was losing money hand over fist, and the beleaguered manager fled to the continent. Handel would not write another opera for five years; in the meantime, he redirected his energies, as he did so successfully throughout his career, working for wealthy patrons as well as for the new monarch, George I, whom Handel had served as Kapellmeister while George was still the Elector of Hannover. The composer’s first assignment for King George was the Water Music, written to serve as musical entertainment during a water party on the Thames thrown by the king in July 1717.
Note-writer Brian Berryman explains that the party was a bit of one-upmanship on the part of the King, who was trying to outdo his son, the Prince of Wales, in courting the favors of his own noblemen. “The Water Music, as part of the royal PR machine, was intended to raise the King’s public profile above that of his son’s and endear him to his skeptical British subjects.” Whether it helped the King’s cause or not, it has proved to be Handel’s most beloved work for orchestra.
Following recent trends in Handel scholarship, Hannoversche Hofkapelle forego the traditional division of the Water Music into three separate suites, one dominated by the horns, one by the trumpets, and one by the flute. It was supposed, absent evidence to the contrary, that the “flute” suite in G major (HWV 350) was designed as an aid to royal digestion, hence the more intimate nature of the scoring. But a recently found copy of the Water Music dated to 1718 suggests a different progression, and like other ensembles in recent years, Hannoversche Hofkapelle bases their performance on this version of the score. This version presents the horn-dominated numbers in F major (HWV 348, Nos. 1-10) in order followed by the first two numbers from the “trumpet” suite in D major (HWV 349). Then numbers from that suite and the G-major “flute” suite (HWV 350) alternate before the whole ends with the regal Menuet in D major HWV 349, No. 3. This is so much more musically satisfying a progression of movements that it’s kind of hard to listen nowadays to older recordings of the score, especially ones that insist on presenting the suites in strict HWV order.
The other piece on the program, Concerto grosso Op. 6, No. 11, was composed at another time in Handel’s life when he sensed the winds of change sweeping over English musical tastes and made a politic retreat from opera. In 1740, the year after he launched his series of great English oratorios with Saul and Israel in Egypt, Handel wrote L’Allegro, il Pensoroso ed il Moderato, based on a popular poem by John Milton. As a sort of entr’acte in L’Allegro, Handel arranged his own Organ Concerto No. 14 HWV 296 for strings and continuo, and thus the Concerto gross Op. 6, No. 11, was born. Or born again.
There is, of course, much recorded competition in both these favorite Handel scores, but as I mentioned earlier, more recently recorded versions of the Water Music are to be preferred on scholarly grounds, and among these, there are attractive alternatives from Jordi Savall/ Les Concert des Nations (Alia Vox), Marc Minkowski /Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble (Naïve), Hervé Niquet/Le Concert Spirituel (Glossa), and Manfred Huss/Haydn Sinfonietta Wien (BIS). Among recent recorded performances that still favor dividing the Water Music into three discrete suites, there’s Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque (Telarc), as well as an exciting but slightly loopy version from Kevin Mallon and the Aradia Ensemble (Naxos) that’s undoubtedly the first (and last) recording to include a tambourine! Unlike older recorded versions, the newer ones, presumably following the recently discovered contemporary copy of the score, do include percussion (timpani), and this is a decided plus as far as I’m concerned. That’s true as well of Hannoversche Hofkapelle’s version.
I hope it doesn’t seem that I’m abdicating my critical responsibilities, but so many of the rival recordings of this evergreen score bring something new to the proceedings that it’s hard to come down in favor of one or another. And so it is with this new recording from Hannoversche Hofkapelle. I thought the performance stodgy rather than properly stately at the beginning—those dotted rhythms lacking both dots and dash—but I soon found myself engaged. Overall, this is a lively and attractive Water Music.
I had to adjust to the slightly backward placement of the horns, along with a slight restraint on their part at their first entry. Other directors have given them their head early on, but Anne Röhrig seems to be holding them back just a tad so they can make an even splashier entry when they reprise the A section of HWV 358, No. 3. In fact, this is a subtle and subtly modulated performance that may not sweep you off your feet initially, but there is punch aplenty in the livelier sections, including the first number of HWV 349, with its antiphonal competition between fruity horns and clarion trumpets, drums thudding happily away.
Given the Concerto grosso’s roots in the theater, it’s appropriate for Hannoversche Hofkapelle to play it with gusto and rich string tone, a worthy companion to the Water Music. This is music large of heart and of gesture, and the musicians deliver it that way.
In terms of recording, the orchestra is placed at a middle distance from the listener in a lively acoustic. Neither detail nor impact are sacrificed, however, while the sense of depth and spaciousness is only enhanced with the hi-res surround. If this performance of the Water Music doesn’t muscle its way to the top of the heap, it’s certainly worthy to be included among the best of recent versions.