The first-ever free Late-Night Prom on Wednesday was a Handel extravaganza for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year. Flamboyant French conductor Hervé Niquet and his group Le Concert Spirituel have made a speciality of performing Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks with the huge outdoor forces that would have been employed at the royal occasions. At this Proms concert, the orchestra was 90 strong with a large wind section consisting of eighteen oboes, ten bassoons (including a huge contrabassoon), nine trumpets and nine horns – all specially made, based on the instruments of Handel’s time. It was a pretty noisy affair and probably not the tidiest Handel you will hear, but they succeeded in recreating the festive party atmosphere of the original events.

Hervé Niquet conducts Le Concert Spirituel in the free Late Night BBC Prom © BBC / Chris Christodoulou
Hervé Niquet conducts Le Concert Spirituel in the free Late Night BBC Prom
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

To begin with, visually it was really entertaining – no bad thing for any classical music beginners in the audience, or for people who had never heard a period-instrument orchestra before. Quite frankly, I have never seen a conductor who moves about so much on the stage as Niquet! Dressed in an elegant brocade frock-coat and smart, shiny shoes, he galvanized the musicians’ performance with his dynamic gestures, and also he would step forwards, sideways and backwards as if dancing the minuet or the bourrée. At one point, he even stepped back towards the edge of the stage and had a quick chat with the prommers. All the wind players performed standing up, and especially the nine horn players and nine trumpet players on either side, holding their instruments high, were quite a sight.

Musically, I thought the Music for the Royal Fireworks worked better with these massed forces than the Water Music suites, some of which are quite intimate: I missed the subtle colours of the wind solos. The grand rendition of the opening movement of the Fireworks music (with two sets of timpani and a drum) left us in no doubt that this music was composed for outdoor performance, and it was easy to imagine it being performed in Green Park preceding the fireworks. The work was composed to celebrate the Peace Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle in 1748 and especially in the third movement, entitled “La Paix” (“The Peace”), I was impressed by how Handel managed to capture the nation’s mood of thanksgiving in the music.

In the popular first suite of the Water Music, which opened the concert, the horns played valiantly, creating a festive atmosphere. However, because they were playing on historical “natural” horns (i.e. with no valves or holes), the tuning was often at odds with the string section, which came as a bit of a shock to modern ears. In the second suite, the antiphonal effect of the trumpets and horns was spectacular despite some ensemble problems – nine horns or nine trumpets playing completely in unison is difficult even on modern instruments – of course, one may argue that this was a part of the historical charm. Furthermore, one noticed that the strings had a distinctly French sound with refined phrasing and light articulation (including lovely solos from the leader), although often their elegance was overpowered by the collective oboes or brass. Still, for example the Air in the first suite and the Sarabande in the third (in which the oboe players switched to recorders), had a graceful and intimate atmosphere.

It is difficult to evaluate this type of historically-recreated performance from a purely musical point of view. True, in terms of accuracy, balance and ensemble, things could have been a little tighter, but as a one-off event, they certainly captured the sense of the grand occasion and deserved full marks for sheer exuberance and entertainment.