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GRAMOPHONE (03/2016)
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Harmonia Mundi 

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Reviewer: Richard Wigmore

Long debunked is the charming story that the so-called Water Music restored Handel to favour with his one-time employer the Elector of Hanover, recently crowned King George I. What we do know is that the music captivated the king and his entourage during a famous royal barge party from Whitehall to Chelsea and back in July 1717. And the Water Music – probably played as one long sequence rather than divided into three suites – has been beguiling audiences ever since with its flavoursome mix of robust English tunefulness, ceremonial swagger and Gallic pastoral grace.


From the delightfully sprightly Allegro of the Overture, the Berlin period band give a predictably enjoyable, accomplished performance: polished, rhythmically spirited and supple, imaginative in ornamentation (the oboe embellishments in the Adagio e staccato a model of taste and expressiveness) and choice of instrumentation in repeats. Some of the tempi might initially seem disconcertingly fast, though I came to relish the exuberant, springy Hornpipe, complete with added timpani, and the zesty – and quite undanceable – final Menuet. Of Versailles or Georgian pomp there is ne’er a trace. There is delicacy, and a care for the singing line, in the famous Air (its dynamics aptly varied) and the G major minuets with flute and sopranino recorder. Throughout, balancing of the various instrumental groups seems spot-on, not least in the F major allegros where the thrillingly brazen horns are ballasted by a rasping, gurgling contrabassoon.


For colour, vigour and spontaneous-sounding delight in Handel’s inventiveness, the Berliners are up there with Gardiner, who puts more stress on the vein of English sturdiness, Kevin Mallon and the Aradia Ensemble and the large-scale, high-adrenalin Hervé Niquet, whose horns and trumpets, playing in ‘natural’ intonation, outdo all comers in sheer raucousness. But – and for me it’s a big but – Harmonia Mundi offers only the Water Music, whereas all the other recordings pair it, logically, with the Fireworks. Optimistic or plain mean?


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