by Andy Fawcett
Like every child of fair Albion, a love of Handel’s music is as much my birthright as a taste for stodgy food and a tendency to complain about the weather. And so it is. Yet, for all of his vast and memorable anthems, no piece of music so vividly epitomises a vision of regal Baroque splendour than this suite, written for a civic celebration to mark the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, thus ending the protracted War of the Austrian Succession. Held in London’s Green Park on 27 April 1749, the performance by 100 musicians (Handel had successfully argued with the King to augment the large corpus of wind instruments with some 40 string players) was immediately followed by an ambitious, and ultimately shambolic, pyrotechnic display – thus gifting the music its popular appellation, the “Fireworks Music”. It was the last of the great man’s instrumental compositions.
The other two recordings I own of the piece have never been entirely satisfactory; only one is on period instruments, and that (an early-‘80s performance on vinyl) spoiled by a poor recording. Italian ensemble Zefiro specialises in eighteenth-century repertoire for wind instruments and, while their forces are tiny relative to the original scoring (just 3 each of trumpets, oboes and horns, and two bassoons), the result is a spatially vivid and wonderfully insightful rendition that lacks little of the impact achieved by a larger orchestra. The horn and trumpet playing, especially, is marvellous – intonation and articulation is extremely challenging on the early, valveless versions of these instruments, and this is as good as I’ve heard. Also laudable is the balance achieved with the strings, which essentially double the winds yet seem constantly locked in competition with them, to thrilling effect.
The 25-minute Fireworks Music is supplemented by the three Concerti a due cori, written to provide entertainment for audiences during the intervals in the 1748 oratorio season (the famous Organ Concertos had a similar genesis, many years earlier). Their title refers to the splitting of the woodwind and brass into separate groups to form a double concertino, the strings then providing Handel with a third “choir” to expand his gift for contrasting instrumental textures. Though not, perhaps, the most profound nor memorable of works, their blend of gorgeous melody with stately, high-minded grandeur is wholly and unmistakably characteristic.
A wonderful release then, and a fine recording too (made in the open air, to more closely mimic the acoustic at the original performance! Sensibly, they did so in Italy … in England it’d probably have rained). If you know other recordings of this piece worthy of recommendation, do please chip in below.
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