Fanfare

This disc comes from a period instrument group from Australia that I must confess not to have heard before. The program is in and of itself rather intriguing, as the trio’s main work is nothing less than George Frédéric Handel’s monumental music celebrating the end of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1749. (A side note: Handel was born Georg Friedrich Händel, but by the 1730s he had decided to use the French version of his name for his official correspondence and publications. He never used the often-seen “Frideric,” and only rarely the English “Frederick.”)

On that occasion, as one will recall, the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was celebrated in royal style, with a huge fireworks display and a gigantic orchestra. Of course, there were the usual incidents (such as the crush of 12,000 people all trying to fit into a smallish garden, rainy weather, and finally the apparent explosion of one of the skyrockets that set a pavilion alight). And that was just the first performance, for on May 15 of that year an even larger ensemble was moored out in the Thames River for a display, at which a near riot ensued on shore. Nonetheless, this is probably Handel’s most iconic work (although the Water Music might also make the same claim), and since its time has been ubiquitous as an accompaniment to various important pyrotechnical displays throughout the world (along with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture ).

At its premiere, it was of course an immediate hit, and Handel wasted no time in getting the “Fireworks Light” out for performance by chamber groups. In short order his publisher John Walsh issued a set of pieces arranged for traverse or violin and harpsichord, though Handel’s exact involvement in the transcription is unclear. In any case, it is presented here with a recorder substituting for the traverso that was one of the alternative instruments. Although one does miss the boisterous trumpets, horns, and drums, this rendition is a lot of fun. It sounds like the sort of mild Imperial music one might find on a BBC period show, solid and stiff upper lip but with an underlay of frivolity. Much of its reedy pomp depends upon the nicely nuanced performance of recorder player Ruth Wilkinson, who gives it just the right ornamentation and speed.

Of course, this arrangement by itself is far too brief to carry an entire disc, and so it is coupled with four solo sonatas that Walsh also published about 1732 as for traverso or violin or oboe and continuo. The autograph simply states violin or flauto, which Wilkinson takes to mean recorder in its normal interpretation (and Handel or Walsh “corrected” some earlier flaws, according to the title page of this edition). The term “flauto” was probably a bit more generic, meaning either flute or recorder since Handel was not picky about such chamber instrumentation, and so the recording does not depart from his intentions. These four-movement sonatas have been relatively common in the performance repertory, and so this recording represents nothing particularly new. The performance itself, however, is quite clear and well phrased. Like in the arrangement, the ornamentation is tasteful and often discrete. In such rapid sequencing, such as the final movement of the A-Minor Sonata, she does the various runs and roulades with skill and precision. The continuo playing of her partners is also quite well matched. Harpsichordist John O’Donnell knows instinctively when to fade into the background and when to be more forceful. In some of the lighter movements the powerful gamba playing by Miriam Morris is done away with in favor of a thinner texture that allows for the recorder to dominate, but elsewhere, such as in the gentle walking bass line of the C-Major Sonata, her performance is as solid a foundation for the bass as one could wish for. The only glitches are the occasional hesitancy when Wilkinson changes registers. Though this gets glossed over, sometimes it cannot help but be exposed, a danger of performance on this instrument. Still, all in all this is a nice disc, and well worth acquiring for the Fireworks arrangement alone, giving one a glimpse into the manner in which the average well-to-do household of Georgian England admired Handel’s music.

—Bertil van Boer