December 2008

Handel - Water Music; Music for the Royal Fireworks
L’Arte dell’Arco; Federico Guglielmo, conductor
CPO 777 312-2
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD
Released: 2008

by Rad Bennett

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality *****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

I first discovered L’Arte dell’Arco, an Italian chamber orchestra, on CPO 777 037-2, where they played Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. The recording was very different in that it added winds to the mix, conjecturing that this is the way it would have been played in Dresden. But aside from that notable difference (which works very well), I was impressed by the general sound of the original instrument group and that it would interpret a familiar score in such a fresh manner, original yet totally devoid of anything approaching the bizarre.

Now the ensemble has recorded two of Handel’s most famous works, and the results are splendid in every way. The Water Music has been divided into the three suites we’ve become accustomed to, but there the familiarity ends. The individual pieces are taken at very brisk tempos, yet they never seem rushed, just downright exhilarating. Phrasing is divided into many couplets, with a lot of secco playing. This performance practice decision doesn’t seem choppy at all, and the style propels the music in a thrilling manner. The horns really sound like hunting horns (only in-tune hunting horns) and the trumpets and timpani made a joyful, pungent, musical din. The Royal Fireworks is done with strings in addition to the winds.

The recording is nothing short of perfect. It is clear, yet warm, with remarkable presence. This is true of both CD and SACD layers, though the multichannel considerably antes up the impression of presence. The group uses both harpsichord and theorbo in the continuo, and the delicate sound of these instruments is perfectly realized.

I’m not going to throw away my favored recordings led by John Eliot Gardiner or Charles Mackerras, but I daresay I will play this one more often now than those.