Monday, July 5, 2010

On disc: 'Drottningholm Music'

Johan Helmich Roman: "Drottningholmsmusiken (Music for a Royal Wedding)" – Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Manze (BIS 1062)

Over the last half-century, one of the most agreeable bodies of music to be (re)introduced to the repertory is the baroque orchestral suite – basically, a decorous overture followed by a suite of dance tunes.

Listeners’ exposure to this form once was limited to occasional performances of one of the four suites by Bach – usually the Third, home of "Air on a G String" – and Handel’s "Water Music" and "Royal Fireworks Music," typically in Hamilton Harty’s symphonic arrangements. More recently, especially since 1980 or so, we’ve been introduced to "overtures" and dance suites from theater works by Purcell, Telemann, Heinchen, Zelenka, Lully, Rameau, Gluck and a host of other composers of the 17th and 18th centuries.

This is not, for the most part, Great Music. A lot of it, however, is ingenious music, full of unexpected twists, raucous bursts of energy, atmospheric effects, emotional affect. It can tootle along pleasantly in the background – as it typically was written to do – but there is enough going on to engage listeners’ imaginations, and certainly to get their toes tapping.

I’ve often prescribed baroque orchestral suites as a musical purgative for summer heat. They are light-textured, rarely dwell on dark tone colors, have the kind of melodies you might sing and the kind of rhythms you might dance to (assuming you could get sarabande and gavotte lessons.)

Violinist-conductor Andrew Manze and the Helsingborg Symphony have released a new recording (BIS 1602) of one of my favorite baroque suites: Johann Helmich Roman’s "Drottningholm Music," a large collection of processional pieces and dances written in 1744 for the multi-day wedding festivities of Crown Prince Adolf Frederik of Sweden and Princess Louisa Ulrika of Prussia.

Even if we didn’t have written accounts of the occasion, Roman’s music could tell us that this was a truly over-the-top fancy dress, high-courtly event, among the most lavish of the time. (Also quite the crowd scene – the couple apparently were expected to meet everyone who mattered in Sweden, aristos and commoners alike.)

Much of this took place on or within sight of water, and Roman gave a liquid quality to rhythms, bass lines, even some harmonies, in his dances. The "Drottningholm Music" sounds more consistently "afloat" than Handel’s "Water Music" or the several water-related suites that Telemann wrote for Hamburg.

The Manze performance is less bouyant, at least in the representationally liquid sense, than the recording that introduced me to this music, a 1982 disc of Claude Génetay’s arrangement of the suite with the Chamber Orchestra of the National Museum, Stockholm (Polar Music 361 – out of print but obtainable on the used-disc market).

Génetay emphasizes the rhythmic swing of this music, almost as if the suite were a set of variations on a barcarolle. Manze adorns pieces with more high-baroque touches – rhythmic pointing, ornamentation, heightened affectus in phrasing and harmonic emphasis – at some cost to the "grooves" that Génetay mined from Roman.

The Helsingborg orchestra, like Génetay’s Stockholm ensemble, is a modern-instruments band; but under Manze’s direction, the Helsingborgers are more attuned to historically informed performance practices. Their blend and timbres are barely distinguishable from those of period-instruments bands.

Sound and production quality are up to the BIS standard – a realistic, brightly resonant room acoustic, very high fidelity. This is a standard-digital, not super-audio, release, but it’s hard to imagine it sounding appreciably better.

If you don’t know the "Drottningholm Music," Manze and Helsingborg offer a highly listenable and sonically brilliant introduction.

From ArkivMusic: