The Akademie für Alte Musik perform Handel’s ‘Water Music’

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COMPOSERS: George Frideric Handel
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Handel: Water Music
WORKS: Water Music Suites Nos 1-3
PERFORMER: Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin
CATALOGUE NO: Harmonia Mundi HMC 902216

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From the middle of the second decade of the 18th-century onwards, there were several royal river parties when Handel’s famous Water Music could have been heard live played on the Thames. No orchestral parts used on these occasions have survived, and nor (unusually) does Handel’s own autograph score; so it’s not possible to know exactly what was performed or when.

But the regular suite of 22 movements now known as Handel’s Water Music has become one of his most famous compositions. It’s not difficult to see why. A collection of melodically immediate dance movements preceded by a lively overture and presented in bright orchestration, it sums up the side of Handel that speaks most directly to listeners. The piece’s vitality and brilliance of invention shine forth in the strongest and most appealing orchestral colours in this new recording by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. Starting with a French-style overture, Handel’s varied selection concentrates on dance movements – minuets, bourées, hornpipes and rigadouns – interspersed with more purely abstract sections, each strongly characterised both by the composer and the performers.

In the composer’s first biography, written in 1760, there’s an account of how he and his former Hanoverian employer, now the English King George I, were reconciled through the Water Music. That’s unlikely to be true – their reconciliation, if needed, had surely already taken place – but any listener might well be instantly won over by the charm and ebullience of Handel’s delightful, waterborne inventions.

During a particularly well-documented entertainment performed for George I on the royal barge as he travelled up the river Thames on 17 July 1717, Handel may have had as many as 50 instruments on board, and one can confidently link the Water Music to this outdoor event. In their indoor studio account, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin makes do with 26 players, which works perfectly well in that context.

The quality of playing is extraordinary, with a strikingly characterful oboe solo in the Adagio e staccato movement and rampant horns with raunchy trills in a pacy version of the lively Allegro that follows. Ensemble is flawless from a group that has no conductor, with alert, finely dovetailed playing from each and every instrumental section and an ideally tight rhythmic attack.

Rhythm, indeed, is strongly marked throughout, emphasising the unforgettable individuality of Handel’s thematic gestures as much as the orchestra’s highly distinctive tone colours: the pure innocence of the flute in the D major minuet is succeeded by an enticingly skittish pair of rigaudons. The period instruments register superbly in a rich and full sonic picture that achieves something close to an ideal textural balance.

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George Hall