RECORDS / Watertight Handel: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson review the latest issues of Baroque suites for orchestra

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HANDEL: Water Music

English Baroque

Soloists / Gardiner

(Philips 434 122-2)

A BLAST of fresh air for those of us brought up on the venerable Hamilton Harty arrangements: for years they ferried us off the water and into the royal retiring rooms. Actually, there are times here when even Gardiner's period instruments sound a shade too sleek and sophisticated for these water-borne festivities. The raucous outdoor horns are a dishonourable exception, trilling, rollicking - what must the reserved English have made of them at the time? - a brazen antidote to the serene oboe-led diversions in the F major Suite. As flutes and recorders enrich the strings of the G major Suite, one might easily visualise the royal barges gliding by, harpsichord gently strumming in time with the lapping Thames.

So whilst I occasionally felt the need here for grainier sonorities, the irrepressible spring of Handel's counterpoint is, as ever, attended with all due elan by Gardiner and his players. The up-tempo numbers really dance, those fizzing descents in the lower strings felt as well as heard. And you get two Hornpipes for the price of one: Gardiner adds the Variant in F as an appendix - that's without the brace of trumpets and drums of the D major Suite. ES

LET'S get the musical train-spotter questions out of the way first: why aren't all the quick, short movements marked 'three times' or 'thrice' played thus? Gardiner may have good reasons - he usually does - but it would have been nice to know them. Jonathan Keates's note, readable and widely informed as it is, doesn't say anything about this, or about the arrangement of the movements - and no one seems to have told the German note-writer that Gardiner has swapped the G major and D major Suites around.

That's quite enough carping. Listeners with programmable CD-players, however, can play George I and order or repeat the movements as they choose. Whichever way, the performances are relishable, with all the characteristics of the best Gardiner: stylishness without mannerism, muscular energy and poise, feeling and a sense of delight in the colour resources of the 18th-century orchestra - the husky blend of bassoon, violin and viola in the F major Minuet, the precarious brilliance of the trumpets or the riotous natural-horn trills.

For a sample, try the final 'Country Dance' of the G major Suite: delectably rude, swinging dance vitality, with not a peruke in sight - Breugel in music. This is exactly the kind of performance that makes one wonder if the Water Music is over-exposure-proof - will it ever lose its freshness? SJ

TELEMANN: Orchestral Suites

The English Concert / Pinnock

(DG Archiv 437 558-2)

JUST the prescription for anyone who still thinks of Telemann as strictly second division - purveyor of orchestral suites by the yard. Think again. It's the variety of character and expression that took this sceptic completely unawares; nothing frigid or fusty about these courtly entertainments. Indeed, the deep, elaborate bows of the Overture to the C major Suite, with its ornate flourishes of harpsichord, raise the curtain on movements whose fancy extends well beyond the anticipated grace and decorum.

The hypnotic Sommeille from that same suite has dreamy close-harmony oboes floating on drowsy string quavers, the music to some imaginary drama. Likewise the Air un pui viste from the B flat Suite, whose light-headed rapture is worthy of the most fragrant Handel; or Plainte, whose daring modulations and crushed harmonies strike a profoundly personal and tragic note, rudely disrupted by the gusty violin unisons of Combattans like something from Vivaldi's winter of discontent. The Suite in D brings on horns to lend ceremonial weight to the proceedings, but still formality turns to theatricality in the infectious Ecossoise, with its built-in bagpipe drones.

Archiv's vivid recording places us right there on Trevor Pinnock's harpsichord amidst the busy and exuberant cross-fire of Telemann's part-writing: Paul Goodwin, Lorraine Wood, and Sophia McKenna's oboes are a dazzling alliance. Now, about the other 134 or so suites . . . ES

WHY has Telemann been the butt of so many derisive jokes? If there really is a vast corpus of solid, unimaginative Baroque utility music out there bearing his name I don't seem to have made much contact with it yet. On the evidence of these three Suites and a handful of other orchestral and chamber pieces, I'd say there was plenty of life in Telemann. He may not have had the expressive power and breadth of Handel, nor did he chart the heights and the depths quite as soul-stirringly as Bach, and the elegant quickness of a Rameau or a Couperin seen remoter still, but he has qualities of his own - his folk-music borrowings in particular can go much deeper than stylish imitation.

If there is a slight edge of disappointment at the end of this well-filled disc, it is not with the music, rather with the playing. I can't fault the English Concert on points of style or technical polish, but the marks for expression and characterisation are consistently lower. Without knowing the C major Suite (TWV 55: C6 to the cognoscenti) or seeing the score, I'd guess that Telemann didn't mean the Sommeille to sound - literally - soporific (a little more pathos in those oboe phrases, surely?), and I'm certain that out-of-doors numbers like the Bourree and the Ecossoise from the D major (TWV 55: D19) could be rather more earthy and alive. SJ

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