Sep 11, 2012

Handel: Water Music (CD review)

Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Harmonia Mundi HMG 507010.

A while back I got an urge to listen to Handel’s Water Music. The trouble was I had five or six different versions on the shelf, all of which I liked; and not having heard any of them in some time, I wasn’t sure which one I should listen to. So I listened to a few minutes of each of them, chose Trevor Pinnock’s period-instruments rendering on DG Archiv, and settled in. All of which reminded me of another period-instruments recording, one by Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, that I had always liked but couldn’t find in my collection. I couldn’t find it, I quickly realized, because I had heard it years ago at a friend’s house and always meant to get it; but like so many good intentions, I never got around to it. Shortly afterwards, the good folks at Harmonia Mundi graciously agreed to send me a review copy of the disc, and it confirmed my initial impression. It is one of the finest interpretations of the Water Music I’ve ever heard and the best sounding to boot.

As you probably know, in 1717 King George I ordered up music from George Frideric Handel (1685-1750) for a festive river party the king had organized. In a letter to the King of Prussia, the ambassador Friedrich Bonet described the occasion thus: “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.”

The business of the “fifty” musicians is interesting. The composer employed so large a number for the event because playing outdoors on the river he needed a relatively big sound in order to hear the music; shortly afterwards, a score for a smaller number of performers surfaced, probably done by Handel for more convenient playing indoors. It is this latter instrumentation that most period-instruments ensembles follow today, using twenty-five or thirty players as McGegan does. As for “it lasted an hour,” McGegan takes a little over fifty-six minutes. What’s more, it’s never been entirely clear what order the composer intended the music be played. Traditionally, there are three suites, although the exact ordering of numbers within the suites often varies from conductor to conductor, with some conductors choosing to combine all the music into one or two larger groupings. McGegan chooses the conventional three-suite arrangement and adds several Variations as well.

I usually use three criteria for judging the merits of any recording: its musical performance, its recording quality, and its overall presentation. McGegan and his Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra succeed on all three counts, so let’s look at them one at a time.

In terms of performance, you won’t find a better interpretation than this one. McGegan chooses tempos that appear perfectly judged, not too fast in the usual period-instruments manner and not too slow or old-fashioned. His rhythms sound spirited and invigorating without being rushed or breathless. His phrasing brings out all the delight and charm of the work without embroidering it in any way with eccentricities or mannerisms. In short, if Handel intended this music purely to entertain, McGegan does exactly that. Incidentally, some music historians are fond of mentioning that the little Suite in G major, the so-called “Flute Suite,” probably got played as dinner music while the king was eating on his barge, since it is the most lightly scored of the three suites; but if so, it must have been a remarkably short dinner since the piece lasts less than ten minutes. In any case, McGegan plays it quite delicately, followed by the most lavish and jubilant of the music, the Suite in D major, which McGegan plays in properly celebratory style, closing the show with much pomp and circumstance.

Then, there’s the sound, recorded at the Lone Mountain College Chapel in San Francisco, California, in 1987-88. Simply put, it’s the finest you’ll find in this music, and I’ve heard almost everything available. Where other recordings may sound clear and clean, the Harmonia Mundi recording does that and sounds real, too. It’s like comparing a picture of a pastoral landscape to actually being there and observing the landscape. Other recordings, no matter how good they are, tend to sound artificial by comparison, a little too slick and flat. With the HM recording you get transparency, air, attack, impact, range, and a terrific sense of the acoustic environment in warmth and resonance. It is one of the best recordings of any music you’re likely to hear.

Finally, there’s the presentation, where we find the disc’s one shortcoming. It includes only the Water Music, nothing more. Most other albums these days include at least one or more other items, often the Royal Fireworks Music. Still, it’s the music that counts, and when it’s the best, who cares if there’s no coupling. Besides, the other parts of the presentation are first-class: The Digipak container is beautiful, and the handsomely illustrated booklet insert is a joy. This one I have to add to my list of all-time favorites.



  1. I bought a cassette tape of Watermusic in London in the summer of 1986. It was the second piece of Handel's music that I fell in love with. I have since lost the cassette, but it seems like it was the only version I have ever heard with a relatively slow tempo. Might you have any idea how I can find it again?

  2. There are probably hundreds of recordings of the "Water Music," so there is no telling which one you might have had. You might try versions recorded before 1986 that use modern instruments as a start. Most period performances tend to be a bit faster.


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Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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 Jon 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 for 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 Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings 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 they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. 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 tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II 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.

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Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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