Suite No.1 in F, HWV348
Suite No.2 in D, HWV349
Suite No.3 in G, HWV350
Music for the Royal Fireworks, HWV351
Recorded between 5-8 January 2005 in St Anne’s Church, Toronto, Ontario
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: February 2006
CD No: NAXOS 8.557764
Duration: 71 minutes
Here is a musicologist’s delight! There are many reasons to question the traditional methods of performing this music and Kevin Mallon challenges most of them. I see this recording as a source of argument among academics for some time to come. Even the track listing in the booklet is controversial with many omissions of tempo indication. Most of the known instructions are derived from modern editions therefore I suspect that the tempo indications given here are restricted to those from 18th-century manuscripts. Notions of tempo by later editors can certainly be suspect and, in the booklet note, Mallon makes a particular point about the famous ‘Air’ from Water Music, which is usually played at an andante speed or less. Mallon has found a manuscript with the instruction of Presto and this is how he plays the movement: the solemn melody thus takes on the nature of a jolly dance.
One of the most exciting departures from convention is Mallon’s use of timpani in Water Music. Musicians are usually aware of the necessity to add timpani to those 18th-century scores where trumpets are included but lack the drum part. In the 18th-century timpanists would sometimes improvise from the second trumpet part if required and there are several Mozart and Michael Haydn symphonies and serenades where reconstructions have been made to replace absent drums. Water Music has always worried me – there are trumpets in some movements but no drums anywhere – maybe you didn’t load timpani into barges when serenading the monarch but they are surely necessary in the concert hall.
Christopher Hogwood approves of this theory in the Handel but once said that he was concerned that some of the brass-led movements do not quite work with supporting drums. Mallon comes up with an excellent compromise, using timpani only to support trumpets and then only adding them to fanfare-like passages. Drums are not added where the trumpets play lyrical melodic sequences. Sometimes too, the timpani are used only on repeats. The logic of these additions is very convincing and greatly enhances the music. Hard-headed sticks are used in this performance – absolutely correct for the period and the balance is acceptable although the recording does not focus these instruments very lucidly.
Percussion in another guise makes an appearance in some of the lighter dance movements but here it is more controversial. Mallon chooses to use tambourine: authentic enough in mediaeval dances and it also works well in dance suites by Lully and Rameau, but did anyone take a tambourine on the river in Handel’s time and, if so, could anyone manage to hear it? The conductor’s casual remark to the effect that “the listener will also hear percussion added to the dances, as was often the practice in the 18th century” seems rather sweeping and I am sure there are those who will contest this theory. Although I have reservations as to the justification of these additions, I have to admit that I found that the use of tambourine in rapid dances gave a delightful sparkle and a great lift to the music.
In these performances there are some consistent patterns. Introductions to the ‘Overtures’ of both works are very swift and are sharply ‘double-dotted’ in the French fashion. This element occurs within other movements as well. Mallon also has an interesting habit of grouping notes in pairs regardless of marked phrasing. This feature is more common to a Haydn minuet than a Handel dance but Mallon’s consistency in this matter is strict and logical. Less convincing is Mallon’s idea of architecture. He is certainly very generous with repeats but on two occasions – in the final two Bourrées of Water Music and in the last pair of Menuets of Fireworks Music, I remain unconvinced. The light first Bourrée at the end of Suite No. 3 of Water Music should surely be sandwiched between the rougher, more bucolic second example. Mallon reverses this and the delicate movement, repeated at the end, makes for a very tame conclusion to the fifty-minute work. In a similar way, in the final band of Fireworks entitled ‘Menuets I and II’. Mallon begins with the gentle first minuet and this makes a tame start to the grand final movement. It would have been far more convincing to play ‘Minuet II’ first, using ‘Minuet I’ as a sort of trio section before returning to the triumphant ‘Minuet II’ as a peroration with additional percussion.
These are perhaps my only complaints about a very exciting presentation. The performances are grippingly swift at times, the dances are delightfully rhythmic and the conductor has a grand sense of climax. A well-recorded, challenging disc.