HANDEL Water Music. Occasional Oratorio: Overture • Manfred Huss, cond; Vienna Haydn Sinfonietta (period instruments) • BIS 2027 (SACD: 61:42)
In just the last issue, I dismissed as a nonstarter a reissue of a 1994 recording of Handel’s Water Music by Zdzis?aw Szostak, leading the Lódz Chamber Orchestra. My main reason for rejecting it was that Szostak had pruned the work down to 16 out of a likely 22 numbers, in contrast to earlierRead more recordings I cited by Hogwood and Mackerras that are more complete.
With this new release by the Vienna Haydn Sinfonietta led by Manfred Huss, a conductor who has heretofore been heard mainly in works by the orchestra’s namesake, we’re faced with the question, “Will the real Handel Water Music please stand up?” Huss gives us the same music Hogwood gave us on his 1980s L’Oiseau Lyre recording, but with the individual pieces in a different order. The 2007 Critical Edition is cited as the source for this performance, which, according to Huss’s own booklet note, is based on the newly rediscovered oldest surviving copy of Handel’s autograph, made sometime before 1718.
Huss maintains that Handel originally conceived the work as a vast single suite, rather than as three separate suites or even one tripartite suite, with each segment centered in a different key. Huss then tells us that 10 numbers in F Major are followed by pieces in D Major alternating with pieces in G Major, which are then followed by a concluding piece in D Major, thus keyed so that the trumpets could participate.
You can rearrange the numbers in any order you like, but you can’t avoid confronting certain pesky, inconvenient questions. First, if Handel had truly conceived his Water Music as a vast single suite, is it likely that he would have begun in one key, F Major, and ended in another, whether G Major or D Major? Second, we don’t really know what the original movement order was in 1717 when the King’s flotilla of barges made its way up and down the River Thames—more on that in a moment. What we do know is that the individual pieces that make up the Water Music were published piecemeal over a number of years, and that the work didn’t coalesce into its more or less present form until 1788, when Samuel Arnold’s first edition of the complete score appeared in print.
When proffering their analyses of lofty learnedness, music historians and scholars rarely take into account the physical realities and practical considerations involved in bringing off a musical performance. So, let’s consider the pragmatics of some 50 musicians performing on a barge making its way up and down the Thames Rives on a summer evening.
Handel’s Water Music plays for about an hour, but the roundtrip excursion from London upstream to Chelsea and back downstream from Chelsea to Whitehall would have taken about three hours, or one and a half hours each way. So, already we have a problem. What did the musicians do when they reached the end of the piece after the first hour, with a half hour still to go before reaching Chelsea? Did they take a break? Did they start over again from the beginning and play halfway through? And if so, then where did they start on the way back to Whitehall? Did they pick up where they left off, and play from the middle to the end, and then go back to the beginning and play all the way through to the end again?
Having myself been a participant in outdoor concerts where there’s a finite amount of music on the stands to be played and an indefinite duration of the party to be entertained, I can tell you this: at intervals, the players take breaks, and when they return to their seats to resume playing, they play the same pieces over again but in random order. I once played at an outdoor garden party where we began with a movement from a Haydn quartet, followed it with a Scott Joplin rag, then followed that with a movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, then a movement from a Schubert quartet, and so on. After taking a short break, we came back and played the same pieces over again, but in a different order, not that any of the guests at the party noticed, because they were all milling about and not really paying any attention to the music anyway.
There are other details about the King’s water party we know as well. Album cover photos always show the flotilla in broad daylight under sunny skies, but in reality, it was a nighttime event that didn’t get under way until around 8 pm on July 17, by which date daylight hours would already have been waning for almost a month, and I doubt that 18th-century England had yet heard of Daylight Savings Time. So, it would already have been fairly dark and rapidly growing darker by the time the festivities got underway. I’ve yet to come across any scholarly article or paper that ponders how the musicians played in the dark. Was it by torches or oil lanterns that would have flickered in the breeze? Try reading a sheet of music under those conditions. Can you imagine the missed notes and how dreadful the whole thing must have sounded? Consider too the effects of temperature and dampness on the instruments. Intonation would have suffered egregiously.
But there’s more. We know that upon arrival at Chelsea around 9:30 pm, the King’s party disembarked for a late-night supper and, no doubt, copious libations. Handel and his band likely partook of their own refreshments, both solid and liquid. It wasn’t until after 11:00 pm that all returned to the barges, probably a bit snockered, for the return trip. I wonder if they had a designated oarsman. It’s now almost 1:00 am as the party nears the end of its outing. A good time has been had by all, and if we’re to believe reports of the event, the musicians are still blaring away under the midnight stars as they approach the outskirts of London. No wonder cities now have noise ordinances.
I wasn’t there, and even if I had been, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been on the King’s invitation list. There’s a possibility, though, that I may have found myself on Handel’s barge among the musicians; and if so, I can tell you from firsthand experience of informal al fresco events that things like the order in which pieces are played and the order in which they may or may not be encored tend to be spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment, improvised decisions. I very much suspect that’s how things played out that night in 1717. Handel’s Water Music—or, since Huss believes it’s a single, unified work, why not call it The Thames River Suite?—was a loose and unrelated collection of spirited and delightful divertissement pieces composed for a specific occasion, and the music could be enjoyed, and reportedly was, no matter how the individual numbers were scrambled, and probably were. Therefore, I think that making a big deal out of the order of the numbers, and trying to impose some grand musical plan on Handel’s loose-leaf folder of pieces is a purely academic exercise.
Initially, I’d planned to lay out the ordering differences between the original three-movement suite as published by Samuel Arnold in 1788 vs. the orderings adopted by Hogwood, Mackerras, and Huss. But on examining those differences, I concluded that the results of such a comparative table would be more confusing than helpful, for not only are no two alike in order, but the differences are further complicated by the fact that in some cases variants of some pieces are given, while in other cases they’re not, but instead, da capo repeats are counted as separate numbers. One thing that most recorded versions of the Water Music have in common is that they preserve the internal integrity of the three suites, but not necessarily their sequencing. Raymond Leppard and Neville Marriner present the suites in their published order: 1 (F Major), 2 (D Major), and 3 (G Major). Hogwood, Mackerras, and Gardiner, reverse the order of the Second and Third suites, presenting them in the order of 1, 3, and 2. The reason for this seems to be that placing the Second Suite last allows for the work to end in D Major with its prominent part for a trumpet in D.
The main difference between Huss and the above is that he commingles the pieces from the D-Major and G-Major suites, presenting the entire work as a continuous succession of individual pieces. Whether this is unprecedented or not, I can’t say, though Trevor Pinnock, in his recording with the English Concert, starts off with the First Suite intact, and then, à la Huss, appears to mix numbers from the Second and Third suites together.
The simple fact is that no one—not Huss, not the preparers of the 2007 Critical Edition on which this performance is based, or anyone else alive—knows what transpired on that night of the river party in 1717. A report from London’s Daily Courant states that the “Musick” was played three times, twice going and again returning. But there is no reliable documentation on what was played. Other accounts claim that the musicians played through the pieces yet again onshore at Chelsea during His Majesty’s supper, and that Handel came prepared with additional movements lest the partygoers should become bored hearing the same pieces over and over again.
Undoubtedly, I’ve already wasted way too much space on the folly of trying to make something of Handel’s Water Music that it’s not. It is not an actual work in the sense that we think of that word; i.e., a unified musical composition having a beginning, middle, and end. It’s an accidental gathering of pieces, some of which may have been played on the river trip and others not, while others that were played on the river trip may not have made their way into the Water Music collection as we know it today. Mainly, my point is that perhaps nowhere other than in connection to Handel’s Water Music is there more of a disconnect between the ivory tower of academic conjecture and the real world of an actual ad hoc musical event. So on that note, let me finally turn my attention to the performance at hand.
It’s not just a good one; it’s an exceptionally good one. Thankfully, the Vienna Haydn Sinfonietta is no one-to-a-part period instrument ensemble; it’s a real band. A familiar name, Simon Standage, leads a string complement of eight violins (four firsts and four seconds), two violas, two cellos, and double bass, joined by flutes, oboes, horns, trumpets, timpani, theorbo, mandolin, and harpsichord—still more than half short of the reported 50 or so players on Handel’s barge, but a respectable enough group nonetheless.
Huss’s players are among the very best of period instrument ensembles I’ve heard in this or any other music. For much of the time, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish them from their modern instrument counterparts. Intonation is spot-on, articulation clean and incisive, and their responsiveness to Huss and to the notes in front of them alert and quick. I particularly like the many but not obtrusive embellishments the players add to their parts, a practice I suspect Handel would have expected and encouraged. Huss’s reading reminds me of none so much as Leppard’s with the English Chamber Orchestra, a performance I’ve long admired for its similar feeling of freewheeling rhythmic Schwung and spirited spontaneity.
For the most part, Huss’s tempos fall into line with the norm for performances of the Water Music, but even the faster movements exude a relaxed, easygoing feeling, as opposed to the more hyperkinetic reading by Mackerras with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s on Telarc. Where Huss’s concluding Menuet proceeds with a feeling of regal dignity and decorum, Mackerras’s players sound like they see the dock ahead and are ready to abandon the barge and swim the last few meters just to get there and home quicker.
If you don’t already have half-a-dozen recordings of the Water Music that satisfy your bliss—and I’d remind you, they’re not all alike because of the different ordering of movements—I can enthusiastically recommend this one as being superbly and imaginatively played, and beautifully recorded in outstanding sound on this BIS SACD.
A final few words on Huss’s filler, the Overture to the Occasional Oratorio. Handel composed the work hastily at the beginning of 1746, and evidence suggests that he wasn’t particularly inspired by the circumstances that occasioned it, for it probably contains more borrowings from his other oratorios and more cribbing from well-known hymns, anthems, and patriotic songs than anything else he wrote. The occasion was the anticipated victory by King George II’s army over the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 during the War of the Austrian Succession. Oddly, considering all the material Handel drew upon from other sources, including his own, borrowings from the Water Music are conspicuously absent from the Occasional Oratorio. Huss’s filler would make a more logical companion for the Royal Fireworks, since Handel did cannibalize that score’s second Menuet for the Oratorio. In any event, the Overture is a proud, triumphal sounding piece, fully fitting to its purpose.
A revelationAugust 14, 2014By Emmett Hoops (Saranac Lake, NY)See All My Reviews"Imagine knowing someone as a friend for 40 years, and one day finding out that this friend is actually the King of Sweden. This is the complete score performed according to the 2007 revision -- based on the oldest copy of Handel's autograph. The result, performed on period instruments, is nothing short of a revelation. Over 40 years, I've collected about 8 different performances of Water Music. Some have faster tempos, some slower, some different emphases on certain instruments. But all follow the same formula. This recording by the Haydn Sinfonietta Wien is so clean, so logical, and so beautifully conducted by Manfred Huss that you will feel as if you've found a new masterpiece."Report Abuse