Handel: Musick for the Royal Fireworks; Concerti a due cori

Zefiro/Alfredo Bernadini (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 886697 367912)

23 July 2009 4.5 stars

ZefiroOnly just over half way through the anniversary year, and the flood of new recordings and reissues of Handel – obscure and well-known – shows no sign of slowing down. However, I'm not complaining if we're going to get discs as thrilling and invigorating as this new release from Italian period instrument outfit Zefiro under director Alfredo Bernadini.

L'oiseau lyre's release of another crack Italian band's take on Handel Concerti Grossi Op.6 earlier in the year caused a bit of a fuss, the publicity blurb seemingly claiming that the group in question, Il Giardino Armonico, possessed an additional authority in performing works based on Italian models. Not surprisingly, no such claims are made for Zefiro's account of the Musick for the Royal Fireworks – based in any case on the formal layout of a suite in the French style – but there's definitely a breezy Mediterranean exuberance to everything they do which is difficult to resist. Their decision to record the work in the cloisters of an old Sicilian Jesuit College aims to recreate some of the outdoor ambience of its various early performances. In the event, one would be hard-pressed to hear any difference in the recorded sound which, although no doubt pleasantly airy, is as detailed and vivid as the best studio efforts might be.

Despite the outdoor recording, then, it's Zefiro's performance itself that does more to conjure up the sheer excitement of a great event. Starting with a daringly elongated drum-roll, with additional tension added by the harpsichord, the disc explodes into a thrilling account of the 'Ouverture'. With clipped phrases, wonderfully clear textures and rhythmic bounce I felt a rare exhilaration and excitement to hear such familiar music sound so fresh. It's a cliché to talk of interpretations new-minted, and it's tempting to resort to the metaphor of Zefiro blowing the cobwebs off this well-known work, but that's exactly what they do. The 'Réjouissance' is magnificent and visceral while the dance movements are imbued with both gracefulness and a raw, rugged out-doors feel. 

The rest of the disc is made up of the Concerti a due Cori HWV 332-334, where the antiphonal effects of the two 'choirs' of wind and brass are realized with particular relish. The music for the concertos is mainly rehashed from choruses from existing works and Bernadini has, we are told, returned to the oratorios and operas in which they occur to help make decisions on phrasing and tempo. The results are consistently successful and distinguished by wonderfully lively and alert playing from the oboes and horns (hear No.2's Pomposo!) in particular, their exchanges gleefully done. The strings, too, play their part, with a sound both pleasingly plangent and, in the faster sections, gutsy and spirited; the solo work, such as the intertwining violins in the Adagio of No.3, is improvisatory and affecting. Underpinning it all with imagination and subtlety is the harpsichord playing of Francesco Corti.

So, this surely has to be one of the most consistently enjoyable releases of instrumental music in Handel's anniversary year so far. The catalogue is certainly not short of recordings of the Fireworks music in particular, but few manage to conjure up the excitement of the occasion – itself something of a fiasco with the primitive fireworks causing havoc, as recounted with mischievous relish in Mary Pardoe's booklet essay – quite so effectively. Zefiro field the standard three each of trumpets, oboes and horns, with a pair of bassoons, rather than trying to recreate the vast original forces, so there's some sense of monumentality without the music ever losing its fizz.

Highly recommended, and I wait impatiently for Zefiro's next disc.

By Hugo Shirley

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Concert Review: Paul McCreesh leads a day of Handel at the Wigmore Hall (Feb '09)
CD Review:
Dmitri Makhtin plays Bach Violin Sonatas & Partitas (Lontano)
CD Review: Handel's Parnasso in Festa with the King's Consort (Hyperion)