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.
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: