Handel: Fireworks Music, Water Music, Coronation Anthems (CD review)

Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir Philip Ledger, Sir David Willcocks; London Symphony Orchestra, Prague Chamber Orchestra, Choir of King's College, Cambridge.  EMI 50999 2 64338 2 (2-disc set).

Because it's been the common practice these past twenty-odd years to record Handel's Fireworks and Water Music using period instruments, it came as a change of pace to hear these works using modern instruments in 1970s and early 80s performances.  Sir Charles Mackerras starts things off in this budget-priced, two-disc set with the Fireworks Music, utilizing what sounds like the entire London Symphony Orchestra.  Not that Handel didn't intend his music for a large ensemble; there is evidence to support the contention that over a hundred players were initially involved.  We just don't hear it that way much anymore.  Be that as it may, the LSO sound fine, and the music does take on a grandeur sometimes missing in smaller performances.  Indeed, when you play a period-instruments group for comparison, the latter might sound positively puny to you.  No complaints about the Fireworks Music, which comes off quite well (after a somewhat lugubrious start), with Mackerras adding plenty of zip and sparkle to the proceedings.

In the case of the Water Music, though, Mackerras tones things down a bit with the Prague Chamber Orchestra.  The ensemble doesn't have the sheer numbers of the LSO recording and it may not be on period instruments, either, but it does show a nod toward period interpretation.  The knock, perhaps, is that the performances are a shade on the cool, heavy, even conventional side, especially compared to the lively Fireworks Music that precedes it.  Interestingly, Mackerras would record this music some years later with the Orchestra of St. Luke's for Telarc in a much quicker-paced production.

On the second disc we find Handel's Coronation Anthems, with Sir Philip Ledger leading the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, and the English Chamber Orchestra; followed by Dixit Dominus (Psalm 109), lead by Sir David Willcocks and the same forces, plus soprano Teresa Zylis-Gara, mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, countertenor Martin Lane, tenor Robert Tear, and baritone John Shirley-Quirk.  These are exquisitely refined readings that show the composer and the performers at the top of their form.

As we have four different recordings here from four different years (1976, 1978, 1982, and 1965 respectively), we get different sound from each.  I found the Fireworks Music and the Dixit Dominus a trifle bright in the highs and light in the bass.  The Water Music seemed to fare best, but, then, it has the least in the way of frequency extremes and dynamics to deal with.  And while the vocal numbers appeared a little pinched and edgy to me, there is certainly no lack of clarity involved.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa