It was a long and lavish night out; an exercise in PR, power and politics, and a very public private entertainment. On the balmy evening of 17 July 1717, at a cost of ‘a hundred and fifty pounds for the musicians alone’, King George I stepped into the Royal Barge at Whitehall and sailed in a flotilla of courtiers and diplomats to the Chelsea home of Lord Ranelagh, where he took supper.
His ear tickled by three orchestral suites that synthesized French, Italian and native styles with novel instrumentation (it is thought that the softer-edged G major Suite may have been played indoors) the King so much enjoyed Handel’s creation that he called for it to be played a second and third time.
The party ended back in Whitehall at 3am and Handel’s status as England’s leading composer was secured. As with many of his compositions for royal occasions, he had built on the legacy of Purcell’s theatre music, creating dances of immediate and lasting appeal. Yet the first complete edition of the ‘famous Water Musick’ was not published until almost 30 years after his death.
The best recording of Handel’s Water Music
Hervé Niquet (conductor)
Le Concert Spirituel (2002)
On disc and online, there is a wide choice of historically informed performances: Christopher Hogwood’s 1978 L’Oiseau Lyre recording with the Academy of Ancient Music remains outstanding for even-temperedness; Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s account of the Suite in F with the European Union Baroque Orchestra for Estonian Record Productions boasts a dynamic bass line; there’s a pleasing pithiness to Nicholas McGegan’s interpretation with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and great panache from Ensemble Zefiro directed by Alfredo Bernardini.
From questions of scale and ordering to speeds, dynamics and instrumentation, the variety is remarkable, but from a shortlist of 16, I found myself drawn to those discs with a distinctive, even radical character. We think of the 18th century as a quieter place, but audibility would have been a factor on the Thames (think of Canaletto’s busy riverscapes).
Then there’s the laugh-out-loud shock of hearing hunting horns with an orchestra for the first time. For this reason, Hervé Niquet’s 2002 Glossa disc took first place, with nine horns as pungently tuned as those of the Bohemian players engaged by Handel himself. There are vast choirs of Stanesby oboes and bassoons, kettledrums, and a Jingling Johnny in the final Gigue. It’s packed with humour and sensuality, as hedonistic as a tequila slammer and absurdly enjoyable.
Three more great recordings of Handel’s Water Music
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (2016)
Harmonia Mundi HMC902216
No conductor, a single pair of oboes, two house-trained horns, a brace of gleaming natural trumpets and a band of musicians who really listen to each other. With 13 fewer players than Handel’s band of 50 and less than half of Hervé Niquet’s forces, Akademie für Alte Musik’s delicately drawn 2016 recording is exquisitely recorded to reflect the different colours in the writing, and is beautifully blended throughout.
There are some daringly slow tempos, a wide dynamic range, and touching intimacy in the minuet of the second suite, where lutenist Björn Colell shines. Where Niquet offers spectacle, the Berliners offer inventive articulation from the violas, playful trills from contrabassoon and double bass, and a soundworld perhaps better suited to the king’s Chelsea supper than the hurly-burly of the Thames.
Jordi Savall (conductor)
Le Concert des Nations (1993)
Alia Vox AVSA9860
Jordi Savall’s 1993 performance of the Water Music on Alia Vox boasts the warmest toned oboes, bassoons and horns and beautifully direct string playing in the unusually reverberant acoustic of Cardona Castle in Catalonia. It’s honeyed and poised playing, with sensitively pointed continuo accompaniment from Pierre Hantaï on harpsichord and Paula Chateaneuf on theorbo. Savall has played with the ordering of the D and G major dances, crafting them into one persuasive suite of similar length to the F major Suite.
John Eliot Gardiner (conductor)
English Baroque Soloists (1983)
Philips 434 1542
There’s a haughty, ceremonial beauty to Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 1983 performance with the English Baroque Soloists. Though the tone is a little thin by modern standards in the sections for single strings and solo oboe, the muscularity of the tutti trills is thrilling and the horns would make any monarch proud. No corner has escaped unexamined and the engagement of the cellos and double basses is unflagging.
The Adagio e staccato of the F major Suite is sculpted without cloying sentiment and the Andante is suavely balanced. What is lacking in tenderness in the birdlike and dewy dances of the G major Suite is compensated for by the athleticism of the D major Suite, a tart flavour to the final Bourrée, and a lovely round tone to the timpani.
This article first appeared in the December 2016 issue of BBC Music Magazine, written by Anna Picard.