- An outstanding copy of Handel’s masterpiece with solid Double Plus (A++) sound from start to finish – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
- A bigger hall, more transparency, and more clearly layered depth and more space than many others
- Shockingly AIRY and WARM, this is the kind of sound that makes it easy to fall in love with an oft-heard piece such as The Water Music
- Note how far back the trumpets are in the hall, yet they are still clear, tonally correct and not smeared – that’s the sound one hears in a live performance (and too rarely on a record)
This recording should be part of any serious Classical Collection. Others that belong in that Must Own category can be found here.
The performance by the English Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Raymond Leppard is currently my favorite, owing in large part to the fact that it has the kind of sound I find the most natural and enjoyable.
In a way this may not be quite fair to other equally well-known, well-respected performances. We went through an elimination round for the work a few weeks back, winnowing the recordings down to those that had the best sound, regardless of performance — perhaps some of the discarded records had even better performances than Leppard’s. At this late stage who can say?
We audiophiles want the music we play to sound its best, a requirement which more often than not involves compromises of one kind or another. We are happy to report that that does not appear to be the case with The Water Music (keeping in mind the caveat above).
This vintage Philips import pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records can barely BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in the studio with the orchestra, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage all analog recordings are known for — this sound.
If you exclusively play modern repressings of vintage recordings, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — not often, and certainly not always — but maybe one out of a hundred new records do, and those are some pretty long odds.
The modern version of The Water Music contains three separate suites, referred to as Suite No. I, Suite No. 2 and Suite No. 3, each of which is in a different key, and each of which makes use of different instrumentation. Suite No. 1 is the one that will be most familiar to you, 2 and 3 quite a bit less so. Click on the Water Music tab above to read more about the work.
What the Best Sides of Handel’s Water Music Have to Offer Is Not Hard to Hear
- The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
- The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1970
- Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
- Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
- Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional studio space
No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.
Copies with rich lower mids and nice extension up top did the best in our shootout, assuming they weren’t veiled or smeary of course. So many things can go wrong on a record! We know, we’ve heard them all.
Top end extension is critical to the sound of the best copies. Lots of old records (and new ones) have no real top end; consequently, the studio or stage will be missing much of its natural air and space, and instruments will lack their full complement of harmonic information.
Tube smear is common to most vintage pressings and this is no exception. The copies that tend to do the best in a shootout will have the least (or none), yet are full-bodied, tubey and rich.
What We’re Listening For on Handel’s Water Music
- Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
- The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
- Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness so common to these LPs.
- Tight punchy bass — which ties in with good transient information, also the issue of frequency extension further down.
- Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the instruments.
- Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.
Suite No. 1
Ouverture(Grave-Allegro-Adagio E Staccato)
Suite No. 2
LA Phil Background on The Water Music
The Water Music dates from Handel’s first years in England, where he arrived in 1710, officially on leave from recent employment in the Elector of Hanover’s court. He returned again in 1712 and stayed permanently after ingratiating himself with Queen Anne, who awarded him a lifetime pension of 200 pounds a year — enough to live on. In 1714, the Elector of Hanover became George I of England on Anne’s death and, far from showing displeasure with his ex-employee, doubled Handel’s royal pension. Indeed, Handel was faring better than the king was. George, who never learned to speak English and brought with him a German inner circle and two German mistresses, was roundly disliked as a foreigner more interested in Hanover than in England. His way of softening the English power structure’s harsh, if essentially accurate, view of him was to entertain it with barge parties.
We know there were royal parties on the Thames in the summers of 1715, 1716, and 1717. Handel probably provided music for those occasions, but the only account that actually mentions him is a letter from Friedrich Bonet, a Prussian diplomat, describing a party on July 17, 1717:
At about eight in the evening the King repaired to his barge. Next to the King’s barge was that of the musicians, about 50 in number – trumpets, horns, oboes, German [i.e, transverse] flutes, French flutes [i.e. recorders], violins, and basses, but no singers. The music had been composed specially by the famous Handel, a native of Halle and his Majesty’s principal court composer. His Majesty’s approval of it was so great that he caused it to be played three times in all, twice before and once after supper, even though each performance lasted an hour. The evening was as fine as could be desired for this occasion and the number of barges and boats full of people wanting to listen was beyond counting.
Though Bonet’s account describes the length and instrumentation of the Water Music more or less as we know it today, the earliest surviving score of “the celebrated Water Musick” dates from the 1730s, after Handel had been using the music in his theatrical presentations just as he used concertos, likely making changes for those occasions as was his practice. As we now know it, the Water Music consists of the two suites on this program – the “horn” suite in F and the “flute” suite in G – and a “trumpet” suite in D.
Typically for Handel, the suites don’t fit any particular mold. The G-major Suite consists of movements that are dances in all but name (Handel did not give them all titles). The F-major Suite is a sort of extended modified French suite, with a stately Lullian beginning to its Overture and some dance movements interspersed with non-dance movements. Handel’s striking use of the horns would have been all the more remarkable in 1717, when horns were rare in orchestras. As far as anyone knows, neither Handel nor any English composer had used horns before, but they have a more prominent role in the Water Music than the solo violins in the concerto that opens this program.
There is evidence for the different arrangement found in Chrysander’s Gesellschaft edition of Handel’s works (in volume 47, published in 1886), where the movements from the “suites” in D and G were mingled and published as one work with HWV 348. This sequence derives from Samuel Arnold’s first edition of the complete score in 1788 and the manuscript copies dating from Handel’s lifetime.