Fanfare

No, you have not read wrong, and I did not leave anything out of the headnote. This is a recording of the Music for the Royal Fireworks, arranged for German (transverse) flute and continuo by Handel’s London publisher, John Walsh. Here it is played by Australian recorder player Ruth Wilkinson and two University of Melbourne colleagues, bass viola da gamba player Miriam Morris and harpsichordist John O’Donnell. All have specialized in period performance of Baroque repertoire for many years and have trained many of Australia’s growing number of early music artists. This is, as far as I know, the only recording of this period arrangement, at least on a commercial release. While it is, in scale, as “wrong” as Hamilton Harty’s full symphonic treatment is in style, it is an appealing take on the original, emphasizing the dance origins of the music and providing a window on how music was marketed to the home audience in the mid-18th century. It appears in a collection which includes popular pieces such as Zadock the Priest, and marches from Atlanta, Joshua, Saul, and the Ode for St Cecilia’s Day. The arrangement’s biggest deficiency is found in the inability of the recorder and harpsichord to register anything like the dramatic dynamics of the original, especially noticeable in the Overture, but really an issue throughout. Once past that obvious limitation, though, the listener will find this to be a quite entertaining reading of the work, with nice lilt and unhurried pacing.

The sonatas are a more mediocre commodity, though these fine performances would be welcome no matter how crowded the field. My favorite recordings of the four opus 1 recorder sonatas are those of Michala Petri and Keith Jarrett on RCA and those by Rachel Beckett et alia from Hyperion’s com­plete edition of all 20 accompanied solo sonatas for diverse instruments. Ruth Wilkinson is an excellent player, but does not have the astounding technical precision and nearly infallible intonation of Petri or Beckett. In fact, allegro movements are taken at a consistently slower tempo, and pitch, always a challenge on the recorder, frequently droops at the end of phrases. I do not want to make too much of this, as the performances excel in the projection of Handel’s energy and charm, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing this recording. O’Donnell is an assertive and resourceful partner in this, as is Morris, who plays in all but the Fourth Sonata (for reasons explained in the notes), and whose bass viola da gamba adds a pleasing warmth and texture that modern cellos generally cannot.

This recording uses the John Walsh edition of the sonatas as its source, with “reference” to the autograph manuscripts, but I am unsure how that might differ, if at all, from editions used by other artists who have recorded these works. The notes also reveal that O’Donnell is using a tuning suggested by his own interpretation of the looped drawings on the title page of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier that are a much debated topic among period performance scholars.

The performers seem particularly proud of the Australian origins of their instruments, “histori­cally accurate instruments which have their own individual voices,” and well they should be, as they are attractively voiced and blend nicely. The recording itself, done in collaboration with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, is fairly close, but warm and detailed, with sufficient air that it does not seem claustrophobic. This fine release is happily added to my collection of the Handel sonatas, and especially appreciated for the unusual Fireworks Music arrangement and the opportunity to become acquainted with the work of these fine antipodean musicians.

—Ronald E. Grames