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 Music 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.