08 March 2024

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Handel: Concerti grossi, Water Music and others

“Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived. I would bare my head and kneel at his grave.”
Ludwig van Beethoven

Karajan isn’t widely thought of as a baroque specialist. Nevertheless, he “had a great if somewhat eccentric fondness for Handel’s music (Richard Osborne).” Early in his career in Ulm in 1933, he conducted “Julius Cäsar” in a “truncated and musically marmoreal performing edition by Oskar Hagen that had become hugely popular with the audiences between the wars. (Osborne)” 18 months later, now in Aachen he repeated this performance in an open-air setting. He recorded a single aria “V’adoro pupille” with Leontyne Price in 1960.

In 1951/52, Karajan recorded a selection of the “Water Music” in an Edwardian arrangement by Sir Hamilton Harty with the Philharmonia – a home game for every British orchestra. “Karajan had something of an obsession with this and drove everyone to distraction with it”, as Richard Osborne wrote, but on the fourth attempt in summer 1952 he was satisfied with the recording. “The magically distant off-stage horns at the end of the ‘Air’ and the wonderfully purposeful on-stage horns in the opening movement are but two of the splendours. (Osborne)”

George Frideric Handel’s “Water Music” is a collection of 21 pieces for orchestra whose original order has not been established beyond doubt and which is usually performed in three suites. The title derives from one of the glamorous occasions on which it was performed (maybe for the first time). On 17 July 1717, King George I of England went on a boat trip up the Thames and was attended by a separate barge with 50 musicians playing “the finest Symphonies, compos’d express for this Occasion, by Mr Hendel: which his Majesty liked so well, that he caus’d it to be plaind over three times in going and returning.” as “The Daily Courant”, Britain’s first daily newspaper wrote two days later.

In 1954, Karajan conducted it on his first-ever Japan tour with the NHK Symphony Orchestra. The “Water Music” was also on the programme during his United States tour with the Philharmonia in the following year. Again, the horns led by Dennis Brain and Neill Sanders played a prominent part and made a great impression on the critics. Having heard Harty himself conduct the suite some twenty years earlier, Paul Hume recalled:

“Not since then from anyone has it had the combination of regal splendour and scintillating verve von Karajan gave it.”

1959 was a Handel year (he died in 1759). Karajan conducted the “Water Music” at the memorable concert with Glenn Gould and Pierre Fournier in Lucerne. “Since the concert started with the suite from Handel’s Water Music (Karajan arriving across the lake in a high-speed police launch) he was in seventh heaven. (Osborne)” Karajan also conducted the suite during the “World Tour” with the Vienna Philharmonic and recorded it with the Berlin Philharmonic in the studio.

Another cycle of Handel pieces Karajan conducted was the set of Concerti Grossi op 6. He recorded the complete Concerti in the late 1960s but performed them with different frequency in concerts, some of them never (No 1 – 4, 6, 9 – 11), some a few times (No 5, 7, 8) and one quite often (No 12) – the latter with orchestras he didn’t work with regularly like Göteborgs Symfoniker, the RAI Orchestra Torino and the Orchestre de Paris. It is remarkable that in the 1950s and 1960s Karajan put together programmes which would appear quite unusual today. He combined Handel Concerti with Stravinsky, Berg, Schoenberg, Kodaly, Honegger and even Ligeti in one part of a concert.
About the LP set the critic Edward Greefield wrote in Gramophone: “[The performances] represent an unashamed return to ‘Big Handel’, and try as I did to put on my scholar’s vinegar face while listening to them, I must confess the sumptuousness of the sound […] had me capitulating very quickly.”

In 1975 Karajan was thinking of conducting Handel’s “Messiah” in Sir Eugene Goossens’ opulent version at the Salzburg Easter Festival. He discarded the idea, saying he would leave it to Colin Davis, whose recordings he appreciated.

We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan conducting Handel. Listen to them here.

Gramophone, April 1967

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998


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