Handel: The Musik for the Royal Fireworks (CD review)

Also, Concertos a due cori Nos. 1-3. Alfredo Bernardini, Zefiro. Outhere Music Arcana A 386.

You know the story: 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 big 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 a huge wooden structure built especially for the occasion. Apparently, the affair was a great success despite some disappointing fireworks and a part of the building burning down. However, historians aren't exactly sure 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." To complicate matters, though, 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 comes closest to the historical event. Most recordings either use much-reduced forces--such as here, with Alfredo Bernardini and the period-instrument group Zefiro--or use an ordinary chamber-sized ensemble or in rare cases larger numbers, like Charles Mackerras's versions with full orchestra and military band.

In any case, Bernardini appears to have about thirty players at hand, which isn't quite as large as the original manuscript score would indicate but does make for a clearly textured, transparent sound. Besides, after the premiere event, the bands in Handel's own day probably would have played the Fireworks Music with reduced forces, anyway. So, no, the number of players involved in Bernardini's account isn't controversial these days, thanks to the many recordings available from all-sized groups.

Nor is the difference in Bernardini's realization of the score a matter of tempo speeds. Bernardini chooses some modest pacing throughout the work, never fast or helter-skelter as we sometimes hear. In fact, Bernardini's tempos are quite enlivening without being too severe. It's mostly a matter of Bernardini using a relatively small period ensemble and then striving for an energetic performance rather than a stately or elevated one. What we get as a result is something less sumptuous than, say, Perlman's interpretation with the Boston Baroque, which is actually faster but lusher and more regal in its rendering. Nor is Bernardini as invigorating as either of Pinnock's performances (with and without strings).

Alfredo Bernardini
Some listeners who eschew extreme approaches to music may appreciate Bernardini's reading. It's zippy without being exhausting; it's exhilarating without being hurried; it's dignified without being stuffy. Not a bad combination.

Which brings us to the couplings: the three Concerti a due cori. They were among Handel's last compositions, and he arranged them for instrumental band from existing choruses taken from his oratorios. I liked the diverse textures the ensemble creates in them and the lively spirit Bernardini adopts. These performances alone are well worth the price of the album.

However, I didn't find the Zefiro group entirely to my taste, sounding a little less rich and exacting as my favorite period performers, the Philharmonia Baroque, the Boston Baroque, and the English Concert. But, again, this is a matter of personal taste, and certainly one cannot fault the enthusiasm of the Zefiro players.

Jens Jamin produced, engineered, and edited the album, recording in the cloister of the Jesuit College, Catania, Italy, in August 2006. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi originally released the recording in 2008, and the folks at Outhere/Arcana rereleased it in 2015. The cloister, presumably outdoors (although the definition of "cloister" can be ambiguous on this point) provides an appropriate setting for the Fireworks music since the first performance took place outdoors, albeit with considerably larger forces.

The sound favors the upper frequencies, as we might expect of an outdoor setting, leaving a fairly light, dry low end. The midrange is reasonably clear and detailed, the dynamic range is wide, and transient impact is good. Still, the overall impression is one of forwardness rather than balance, and several times I thought about turning up the bass a few notches to increase the warmth (a temptation I resisted, incidentally). Anyway, we have to remember that playing music outside will have this effect on the sound; there is little or nothing in the way of room reflections, and bass can become a little lost.


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

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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 ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine 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.

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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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa