When you play Handel's "Water Music" as the centerpiece of a hectic 16-concert tour of Europe spread over three weeks, perhaps it's inevitable that you begin to refer to the work as "The Flood."

But the term of endearment could also apply to the outpouring of acclaim that the Handel Festival Orchestra of Washington has been receiving in its whirlwind swing through Europe's classical music meccas to celebrate the 300th anniversary of George Frideric Handel's birth.

In Prague, Vienna and Venice, the 21-member ensemble has been greeted by enthusiastic sellout audiences that seemed to engulf the stage, clapping and stamping their feet until the group returned to play several encores.

On Wednesday night, during a performance in Cologne's Guerzenich music hall, the German audience listened with respectful appreciation to selections from Vivaldi and Mozart in the first part of the concert.

But traditional German reserve melted away in the second half as the D.C. group launched into "The Flood." The crowd reveled in the giddy transitions from allegro to presto to hornpipe, even giggling with admiration at Susan Deaver's lilting embellishments on flute and piccolo.

After being summoned back by the loud applause and thundering feet, music director Stephen Simon introduced an unusual "Nachspeise," or dessert, of a Grand Duo Concertante written in the 1860s that crowned Bottesini as the "Paganini of the contrabass."

The arduous piece was a highly challenging test of Richard Frederickson's range on the bass. But he survived the ordeal in high spirits, paced by concertmaster Sung Ju Lee, a Korean violinist.

The Handel Festival Orchestra, now in its ninth season, performs six concerts a year at the Kennedy Center. Most of the ensemble's brass, woodwinds and strings also play in operas and oratorios in Washington, though much of their work is now done in other cities.

Under Simon's stewardship, the group tours every three years, offering host cities a "menu" of four programs. In Vienna, they were asked to split the program to honor the anniversary of Bach and Handel -- both were born in 1685.

Simon reports that he has rarely encountered such enthusiasm for the Handel performances as on the current tour. In Prague, "the concerts were sold out for three months; people were three deep in the aisles," he said. "They simply would not let us out of there without playing several encores."

The intensive schedule has carried the group through Italy, Switzerland and now West Germany, where it will play five concerts before returning home.

The highlight of the tour, at least so far, was "undoubtedly the Festival of Strings at San Marco in Venice," according to Simon. The ensemble was ensconced in the organ loft, surrounded by beautiful frescoes and another sold-out house.

And even though the famed piazza in front of the church was not yet inundated with the first of the cold-season rains, could there be a more fitting place to play "The Flood"?