Spectacular Handel from Zefiro–A Welcome Reissue

Review by: John Greene

Handel

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

This is a reissue of a performance originally released on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi in Europe, one of the label’s final offerings before it was dissolved in 2008, and an import rarity that found little distribution in what was left of record retail in the US at the time. It was a shame because the recording features truly great performances in glorious, audiophile-quality sound of some of Handel’s most important and beloved orchestral works. Thankfully, Arcana has chosen to make it available once again.

For years my two longstanding reference recordings of this–the later, grander 1749 revision of the Royal Fireworks Music–were performances by Jordi Savall directing Le Concert des Nations (Astrée, now AliaVox) and Trevor Pinnock with the English Concert (DG Archiv), and I enjoyed both for different reasons. Much had to do with the tempo choices. Savall’s broader, more gracious approach–a 23-minute performance–provided a nice contrast to Pinnock’s more uptempo, often thrilling 18-minute run. At 21-plus minutes Zefiro’s performance strikes me as a “just right” middle course.

In my reference recordings I also appreciated how the relatively more spacious sound engineering of Savall’s recording complemented his performance, and how in a similar way the thinner, somewhat more detailed acoustic afforded to Pinnock complemented his. The DHM engineers astonishingly provide Zefiro with the best of both approaches in creating the illusion of a rich array of life-like instrumentation set in a convincingly wide, open-air soundstage. Savall enters the work without fanfare while Pinnock begins with a brief, celebratory drum roll. Zefiro ups Pinnock’s ante, opening the festivities with an opulent, elongated percussive roll, joined at the last moment by harpsichord and strings, in effect heightening the grandeur of the following, spectacular overture by the full orchestra. Perfect!

Zefiro’s performances of the three Concerti a due cori compare very favorably with Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music’s reference versions (L’Oiseau-Lyre, now Decca). Timings, the way the movements are shaped, and the dynamics are nearly identical, though again, Zefiro benefits from noticeably superior sound. The definition of the strings, and especially the brass, far surpasses what was possible with digital recording more than 30 years ago.

Mary Pardoe’s engaging notes, loaded with fascinating quotes and anecdotes, thankfully have been retained for this reissue. Arcana’s packaging and presentation, as usual, are second to none. Don’t miss this!



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Le Concert des Nations/Savall (Astrée); English Concert/Pinnock (Archiv); Academy of Ancient Music/Hogwood (L'Oiseau-Lyre)

  • HANDEL, G.F.:
    The Musick for the Royal Fireworks (1749 version) HWV 352; Concerto a due cori No. 1 in B-flat major HWV 332; Concerto a due cori No. 2 in F major HWV 333; Concerto a due cori No. 3 in F major HWV 334

    Zefiro Baroque Orchestra, Alfredo Bernardini


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