Monday, October 29, 2007

Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks"

Few of you probably notice when I change the "What I'm Listening To" or "What I'm Reading" items in the sidebar of this blog. Today I changed the music selection to Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, a familiar work for lovers of Baroque music - and long a personal favorite for me. Parts of it, particularly the opening overture, are often played on classical music radio stations and, having been used in commercials, it's recognizable even by people who don't listen to classical music. With the Water Music, it's among the most familiar works by Handel (pictured at left). The piece was composed by Handel under contract to England's King George II for the fireworks in London's Green Park on 27 April 1749. It was to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle.

Like so many works from the Baroque period, it's been re-scored for different instrumental combinations, with orchestrations for groups from massive orchestras down to smaller ensembles like The Canadian Brass. Also, too many conductors over the years have had the tendency to slow the piece down to an almost ponderous pace. (The same thing has been done, for example to Handel's Messiah, most notably by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which is notorious for rendering the Messiah nearly lifeless with an interpretation that can only be described as "glacial" in its pacing. About 15 years ago I discovered a recording of Messiah that was based on the original score and Handel's personal notes about early performances. With a smaller orchestra more closely matching the instrumentation of Handel's era, as well as a smaller choir, the result was a piece that was so much lighter and "cleaner" than the more typical overweight productions. I was lucky enough to hear this version performed in Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre - a hall in which Handel himself had performed - with Trevor Pinnock leading the English Concert and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge. The experience was like being transported back 250 years.)

Thankfully that effort to interpret Baroque music with period instruments and access to original scores has continued in recent years. So I come back to Music for the Royal Fireworks. I just found a recording by Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert that was based on Handel's original 1749 version. The contrast to other recordings I've heard is remarkable. First, the drums seems so much clearer, and more varied than the ubiquitous tympani employed by other orchestras. Also, reflecting Handel's original instrumentation, the whole piece has a much more "reedy" feel, with oboes and bassoons featured prominently alongside the obvious brass. As an old woodwind player it was nice to hear the winds singing out with the trumpets and horns, particularly as they did their runs in the final measures of the overture. The recording, which I downloaded from iTunes, was so clear that I could hear the clicking of the woodwinds' keys. Some people might find this distracting - like hearing Glenn Gould's humming in recordings of Bach's preludes and fugues - but as a musician I think it adds to the charm of the interpretation.


One Wink at a Time said...

I always check out what you're listening to and reading. In fact I keep forgetting to ask you how you liked the latest Interpol that you had up awhile back.
I'm not really an appreciater (-tor?) of Baroque but then, never really had someone to walk me through. Posts like this are a great way for me to learn to appreciate.
You are so completely well-rounded ;-)

BooCat said...

Dear BrianC, So, something else we have in common. In my checkered past I have been, among other things, a music theory and composition major. The Baroque is one of my favorite periods. The Water Music always brings back fond memories of a friend who died young and tragically, run off the road by a drunk driver. He and I would go out to the lake and sail his little boat while playing Handel on a 8-Track. (That really dates me!)
What was your instrument? I played woodwinds, too. I recently sold my alto sax (a low serial number Selmer Mark VI) to an old friend since I needed the money and had not picked it up in years. My flute is still around here some place, but I never could afford my own oboe or English horn and used the university's. Those are the instruments I regret losing the ability to play. Even if I won the lottery tomorrow and a good Loree or a pre-Loree takeover Cabart popped up, it would take a lot to ever get my embouchure back into any semblance of acceptability for non-offensive playing. They both can be quite unforgiving.