I began celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday a day early by attending a Wednesday evening performance given by the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall. Conducted by Baroque specialist Emmanuelle Haïm, the program featured the music of Georg Friedrich Händel, including two suites from that perennial favorite Water Music.
The program opened with Handel Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 1 in G major, HWV 319 (1739). The soloists on this piece were orchestra members Sheryl Staples and Qianqian Li, violins, and Carter Brey, cello. While the two giants of the German Baroque, J.S. Bach and Handel, were both inspired by Italian music, they each followed different models. Bach was most impressed by Antonio Vivaldi and went so far as to transcribe several of the latter's works for his own use; Handel, on the other hand, was most influenced by Arcangelo Corelli whom he had met while living in Rome years earlier. Handel's publisher John Walsh was also a great admirer of Corelli and had already published that composer's Twelve concerti grossi, Op. 6 (1714). It was not at all a coincidence then that Handel's concerti were also labeled Op. 6 by Walsh. None of this, however, should be taken to imply that Handel's works were slavish imitations of those by Corelli. Far from it. Although Handel adhered to the general formula employed by Corelli in which solo instruments (concertino) interact with the larger ensemble (ripieno, or tutti), his concerti are highly individualistic and filled with drama.
The Concerto No. 1 consists of five movements, the first of which, marked a tempo giusto, is a reworking of an early draft of the overture to Handel's final Italian opera, Imeneo. The other four movements, however, are entirely original and show the composer at his creative best. This point was made quite strongly by Charles Burney in an appreciation of the fourth movement allegro that was reprinted in the Philharmonic's program notes:
"The fugue upon an airy pleasing theme, is closely worked and carried on from the beginning to the end without episode, or division foreign to the subject, and in a modulation strictly confined to the key note and its fifth: those who know the merit and difficulty of this species of composition can alone be sensible of our author’s resources and superiority, whenever fugue is in question."
The two Water Music suites performed next were the No. 3 in G major, HWV 350 and the No. 1 in F major, HWV 348. Guest artist Sébastien Marq, a recorder virtuoso, was soloist on the Suite No. 3. All three suites were premiered on July 17, 1717 by some thirty musicians in a barge on the Thames as they accompanied George I who was traveling in a separate barge from Whitehall to Chelsea. Handel's association with George actually predated the arrival of either in London. In 1710, shortly before he traveled to England, Handel had become Kapellmeister to George while the future king was still Elector of Hanover. It was only natural then that once in England George should turn to Handel when he wished to impress his new subjects with his magnificence. It was an excellent choice. Other than Henry Purcell, the English had produced no significant native composers and Handel's festive suites, especially when performed in so unusual a setting, must have been without question the most exciting musical event London had yet witnessed.
Selections from Rameau's Dardanus were scheduled to be performed in the second half of the concert, but since they were to be repeated at a concert on Saturday afternoon that I also planned on attending I didn't bother staying to hear them on Wednesday evening.