Handel: Water Music (SACD review)

Also, Ouverture from the Occasional Oratorio. Manfred Huss, Haydn Sinfonietta Wien. BIS - 2027.

It seems as though every time a new recording of Handel’s Water Music arrives, it claims to be more historically accurate than any previous recording. Such is the case with Manfred Huss’s 2013 release with the Haydn Sinfonietta Wien, a group he founded and which has been playing on period instruments since 1991.

I’ll let Maestro Huss explain his position as stated in the booklet notes: “In 2007 a new critical edition of the score of the Water Music appeared, based on the newly rediscovered, oldest surviving copy of Handel’s autograph. This copy was made before 1718 and casts new light on many aspects of the piece. It was formerly believed that the music consisted of three separate suites rather than forming a single whole. Now, however, it is clear that Handel conceived all 22 movements as a vast single suite for the boat journey in 1717, although with a different order of movements from what was previously known, producing a work that is both varied and unified, with a ‘proper’ beginning (Ouverture) and effective conclusion (‘Trumpet Minuet’).” Accordingly, Huss and the Haydn Sinfonietta perform this new edition, playing the work as a single piece in twenty-two movements (although done in twenty tracks).

Anyway, as you probably know, the German composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was living in England when he wrote the music at the request of King George I, who ordered up music for a festive river party. In a letter to the King of Prussia, the ambassador Friedrich Bonet described the occasion in this way: “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.”

Here’s the thing, though: the contemporary account indicates that the work lasted about sixty minutes, yet Huss and the Haydn Sinfonietta zip through it in a little less than fifty-three minutes. That’s not unusual given today’s propensity for period-instruments ensembles to play at a pretty heady clip, nor is it anything particularly bad. Indeed, the relatively zippy tempos make much of the music sound more exhilarating than a lot of traditional approaches. Still, I think my favored recording by Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi) maintains the best of all worlds; they also use period instruments but they play at a slightly more relaxed pace, covering the three conventional suites in about fifty-seven minutes. And they sound better than anyone else doing it. Besides, no doubt some people enjoy listening simply to one or two of the three conventional suites at a single sitting rather than the whole thing.

Then, there’s the number of players involved: Remember, the contemporary account describes there being about fifty players in the second boat behind the King’s barge. The Haydn Sinfonietta Wien uses just over two dozen players, about half the size originally assigned to the project in Handel’s day. So, Huss may or may not be entirely as historically accurate as he claims, nor may his tempos be to everyone’s taste. Nevertheless, he and his band give a good, rousing account of the music, which should be the main point.

Under Huss, the opening Ouverture, Allegro displays good zest, followed by the contrasting Adagio e staccato, which evidences an appropriate dignity. Some of Handel's famous horn fanfares come next, and they, too, sound forth with plenty of pomp while maintaining the same vitality as the rest of the fast movements. This is surely a Water Music of regal proportions, yet done up in energetic style.

Nonetheless, it remains a question, as I say, whether this particular performance, authentic or not, will appeal equally to everyone. Yes, it's historically in order and, yes, it's both noble and lively. But is it a sufficiently different interpretation from the multitude of other recordings out there to make it an essential buy? Perhaps to the avid collector. As a first and only choice? That's the issue. No part of the performance struck me as truly inspired, although individual parts come off well enough. The Air, for example, exhibits a wonderful bounce; the dances (which comprise most of the suite) an infectiously rhythmic gait, especially the several Bourrées; and the Hornpipe a splendid bravado.

However, I have to admit that toward the middle of this one long suite things begin showing a degree of sameness that is hard to explain. Certainly it’s not a lack of trying from Huss or his players. Maybe it’s just too much of a good thing, "too many notes" as the King said to Mozart in Amadeus. Perhaps it’s Huss’s pace that began to wear on me. I kept hoping he would vary his step more often, allow a bit more creativity and imagination to occupy the reading. So while most of the suite sounds fine, parts of it tend to drone on, even the 'Trumpet Minuet' that closes the show.

Coupled with the Water Music we find the Ouverture from the Occasional Oratorio, a brief piece in three parts, about eight minutes long. It has a appropriately ceremonial feeling to it and ends in a jubilant mood.

Producer Ingo Petry and sound engineer Fabian Frank recorded the music at the Auditorium Grafenegg, Grafenegg, Austria in March 2012, and BIS released it on hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD in 2013. I listened to the two-channel SACD stereo layer using a Sony SACD player. As with all the BIS products I've heard over the years, this one is nicely accomplished in terms of clarity, imaging, frequency range, and dynamics. It stands near the best recordings of the Water Music I've listened to, if not quite so full, rich, or deep as the aforementioned McGegan disc for HM.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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.

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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.

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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa