Handel: Water Music (CD review)

Marc Minkowski, Le Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble. Naive V 5234.

First a minor note: I don't think I'm the only person who enjoys a good-looking album cover. I often find myself staring at a well-illustrated disc jacket or booklet insert and daydreaming about the connection between the picture and the music. For instance, the Mackerras album of Handel's Water Music for Telarc features a gorgeous painting of "A View of London and the Thames," with what I take to be the King's golden barge floating down the river with his entourage of attendant vessels.  One can almost hear Handel's music floating along with them.

The present Naive disc of Handel's Water Music features a black-and-white cover picture of two people in a rowboat.

Maestro Marc Minkowski leads his period-instruments group Le Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble, France, in mostly lively interpretations of the three familiar suites of Handel's Water Music. The Musiciens du Louvre are a fairly large body of players for a period-instruments band, forty-one performers named in the booklet but around sixty-five pictured in a booklet photograph. I don't know if all of them participated in the album, but even a group of over forty is unusual these days for a period-instruments performance.

Nevertheless, the number of players here does come close to representing the number described in contemporary accounts of the Water Music première event. As you probably know, King George I ordered up the music in 1717 for a gala river party he organized. In a letter to the King of Prussia, the ambassador Friedrich Bonet provided these details: "Along side the King's barge was that of the musicians, fifty of them, who played all sorts of instruments, to wit trumpets, hunting horns, oboes, bassoons, German flutes, French flutes, violins and basses; but there were no singers. This concert was composed expressly by the famous Handel, a native of Halle and first composer of the King's Music. His Majesty so approved of it that he had it repeated three times, even though it lasted an hour on each occasion:  twice before and once after supper."

Needless to day, the forty-odd players of the Louvre present a large-scale rendition of the music, appropriate to the stature of the tunes written for a king, even though the readings do lose a little something in intimacy compared to rival productions. For period-instruments performances, they are surprisingly plush and smooth. If there is anything not here, though, I kind of missed the drums found on several other recordings, authentic to the original performances or not.

Plush or not, Minkowski and his team produce mostly zesty interpretations. Whether they are more accurate to Handel's intentions than other readings probably no one can say. Handel doesn't seem to have left any autograph scores, so we only have the evidence of a couple of eyewitness testimonies and a few manuscripts dated years later. I say "mostly zesty interpretations" because Minkowski performs the first two suites in moderation; that is, he is never excessively fast or slow. The exception is the little Suite in D major, HWV 349, where he varies the tempos considerably more than most other conductors. Anyway, in both cases, they are admirably well played.

Accompanying the Water Music we get an instrumental suite--an overture and several short dances--from Handel's first opera, Rodrigo, premiered in 1707. While I would have preferred hearing the more-commonly coupled Music for the Royal Fireworks, the music from Rodrigo makes a suitable companion piece.

The sound, which Naive recorded in January, 2010, is among the best you'll find in this music, especially considering the relatively large-sized ensemble involved. The sound combines warmth and clarity in equal measure for a realistic listening experience. The hall exhibits a natural ambient bloom well caught by the audio engineers, and there is a reasonable degree of stage depth to add to the stereo spread. I can't imagine anyone complaining about the sonics.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa