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.