Handel: Water Music; Royal Fireworks (SACD review)

Federico Guglielmo, L'Arte dell'Arco.  CPO CD/SACD 777 312-2.

Everybody is striving for authenticity these days, but in the case of Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks, nobody quite gets it right.  This is probably because Handel didn't leave us detailed notes on the music or because he changed things so often.  In any case, Federico Guglielmo and his L'Arte dell'Arco players come about as close as anybody, producing a good all-around recommendation in this coupling.

Things begin with the Water Music, where we usually get two or three suites of movements.  Well, it turns out, the suites are a relatively recent concoction.  Guglielmo plays the various movements in the order they are found in the earliest known manuscript, dating back to 1719.  So instead of  two or three arrangements, we get a single, forty-nine-minute succession of movements.  Of course, Guglielmo's players perform on period instruments and adhere as closely as possible to what researchers today consider period-performance practices.  The results in both the Water Music and the Fireworks music are invigorating, but the tempos are never too fast to be breathless.

Still, as I said, nobody gets it quite right.  Contemporary accounts of the première performance of the Water Music describe about fifty players participating and in the Fireworks music about one hundred or more.  The booklet insert lists only seventeen players in the L'Arte dell-Arco, and in the picture of them, there are only a dozen.  So, in terms of sheer size, L'Arte dell-Arco can't match the sheer numbers Handel had at his disposal for the inaugural presentations of these works.  But as Guglielmo says, most subsequent performances and most court orchestras did not employ anywhere near these numbers, so Guglielmo's small group can get away with reasonably imitating Handel on a less grand scale.

And, naturally, there is a upside to a small ensemble:  They sound more transparent than a big orchestra would.  This CPO recording is clear, clean, and dynamic, the sonics among the better I've heard in these works.  The CPO engineers capture the band in a spacious auditorium that makes them sound like a bigger group than they are, while at the same time not beclouding the acoustics in any way.  What's more, for listeners equipped with multichannel SACD playback, the disc is a hybrid CD/SACD, playable in 2.0 or 5.1 channels in SACD and 2.0 channels on a regular CD player.  I compared the playback of the two-channel stereo tracks in CD and SACD and couldn't hear much difference, but, then, I didn't have access to two separate players and two separate discs for instant comparisons.  In the thirty seconds or so it took to change disc layers, I may have forgotten any differences there may have been.

In any case, good, lively performances on period instruments and good, lucid sound make this disc a contender.


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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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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa