Handel: Music For The Royal Fireworks / Jeanne Lamon Tafelmusik
HANDEL Music for the Royal Fireworks. Concerti a Due Cori: Nos. 1–3 • Jeanne Lamon, cond; Tafelmusik Baroque O (period instruments) • TAFELMUSIK 1011 (65:44)
In reading accounts of Handel’s on- and offstage imbroglios involving opera divas with egos as big as their hair, one is struck by the Marx Brothers-like comedies that make the composer’s biography one of music’s most entertaining. The fights and intrigues are numerous enough to keep the staff of a TV sitcom busy for an entire season. But it wasn’t only in the opera house that Thalia, Greek goddess of comedy, intervened to make folly of Handel’s enterprises; she had a grand time of it with the Music for the Royal Fireworks.
Ordered up by King George II to celebrate the end of the War of Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, the Music for the Royal Fireworks was composed to accompany a spectacular fireworks display in London’s Green Park on April 27, 1749. But the event didn’t go quite as planned. The wooden structure in which the musicians were sheltered caught fire, sending players and spectators fleeing for their lives.
A full dress rehearsal of the work, held at Vauxhall Gardens six days earlier, was also beset by complications. This time it was the gods of bridges and roads that conspired to collapse the central arch of the newly built London Bridge, resulting in a traffic jam no less boggling than those we experience today when carriages carrying some 12,000 paying ticket holders attempted to find alternate routes to the event. Oddly, Donald Burrows’s album note mentions the Vauxhall traffic snafu but not the more catching Green Park pyrotechnic display that lit up the musicians’ gazebo.
Handel’s original instrumentation for the work included no strings (fairly common for outdoor performances) but a very large contingent of winds, brass, and percussion: nine trumpets, nine horns, 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, and three timpani. Also considered, but ultimately rejected by the composer, was a serpent. In other words, the piece was essentially scored for military band. The “indoor” version we’re familiar with today was prepared by Handel a month later for performance in the chapel of the Foundling Hospital. For that performance, Handel made no changes to the actual notes, but rescored the piece with parts for strings and considerably reduced wind and brass forces.
Thankfully, as presented here by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, this is no one-to-a-part, minimalist realization. I should probably have mentioned well before getting this far into the review that this recording, originally released on Sony Classical, was made at a time, 1997, when period-instrument ensembles still had more than four or five players on their payrolls. Thus, the performance here includes 11 violins, three violas, three cellos, two double basses, three bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, timpani, and harpsichord continuo. Since its founding in 1979, Tafelmusik has been one of Canada’s leading period-instrument bands. Jeanne Lamon, who was appointed music director in 1981, is still at the helm today, celebrating her 30th season with the ensemble.
On period instruments alone, Lamon and Tafelmusik are competing against a number of the big leaguers in this work: Christopher Hogwood with the Academy of Ancient Music, the English Concert with Trevor Pinnock, Roger Norrington with the London Classical Players, Martin Pearlman with the Boston Baroque, and two or three others. But caution is advised, for not all versions are created equal. Norrington, for example, uses Handel’s rescoring that includes strings with downsized winds and brass, the one that’s heard here and, be it noted, the one that Handel preferred.
Pinnock, on the other hand, recorded the work twice, once in 1984 with strings, and again in 1997—the same year in which Lamon and Tafelmusik made their recording—in King George II’s preferred scoring for “military” instruments sans strings. Bernard Jacobson reviewed both Lamon’s with strings and Pinnock’s no-strings releases in a double-header entry in Fanfare 21:5, offering a very favorable opinion of the Lamon with the Toronto-based Tafelmusik as “one of the best among those that offer the version of the work with strings.” He was a bit more circumspect about the Pinnock, opining that it did not measure up to Charles Mackerras’s pioneering 1959 recording done with wind band. But adding Mackerras to the mix only complicates matters because his ensemble is composed of modern instruments, while Pinnock’s is made up of period instruments.
My two recordings of the Royal Fireworks Music —that’s right, only two, I’m afraid—are one of each, Gardiner’s 1983 period-instrument performance with the English Baroque Soloists and Marriner’s 1979 modern-instrument performance with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and both are given in the standard with-strings scoring. I’m equally fond of them both, but there’s just enough room in my Handel section to shoehorn in this one with Tafelmusik, which is as smart and snappy as one could want.
I’d also note that I’ve rarely encountered playing on period winds and brass that sounds this solid, secure, and free of intonation mishaps. For all intents and purposes, the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra sounds like a modern-instrument ensemble, which, from my perspective, is a good thing. Of course, if it’s a plus of period-instrument performances for you to hear sour notes and pallid tone, there are always other options.
The three Concerti a due cori , for reasons elucidated below, find themselves not infrequently discmated with the Royal Fireworks Music . In fact, Gardiner mated two of them on his Philips recording. The three works, literally concertos for exactly matched double choirs of strings and wind quintets, have much in common with Handel’s organ concertos in that they were written as interludes to the composer’s oratorios. Much of the music is not newly composed but cannibalized from Handel’s other oratorios.
According to album notes—Donald Burrows for Lamon and Nicholas Kenyon for Gardiner—the first two concertos, HWV 332 and 333, were intended as intermezzi for Joshua and Alexander Balus , respectively, while the third of the three concertos, HWV 334, was intended for Judas Maccabaeus.
The reason these concertos make appropriate companions to the Royal Fireworks is that much of their content, as noted above, is appropriated from pre-existing Handel scores, the Royal Fireworks Music being among them. You’re also sure to recognize “Lift up Your Heads” from Messiah , and, depending on how familiar you are with Handel’s music, a siciliana from Esther , a chaconne from Queen Anne’s Birthday Ode , and other various and sundry borrowings.
This is a wonderful disc, and not just for Handel lovers. The music is invigorating, splendidly performed, and exceptionally well recorded. I recommend it to everyone.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Catalog Number: TMK1011CD
Label: Tafelmusik Media
Composer: George Frideric Handel
Conductor: Jeanne Lamon
Orchestra/Ensemble: Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra
Performer: Derek Conrod, John Abberger, Julie Brye, Michael McCraw, Nadina Mackie Jackson, Ronald George, Stanley King, Teresa Wasiak, Thomas Müller, Washington McClain