musica Dei donum
George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): The Choice of Hercules; Dettingen Te Deum
Rachel Kelly (Virtue)b, Fflur Wyn (Pleasure)b, soprano;
Diana Moore (Hercules)mezzo-sopranob;
Michael Ash, altoa;
William Andersona, Nathan Haller (Attendant of Pleasure)b, tenor;
Thomas Lowen, Cody Quattlebaum, bassa
Christ Church Cathedral Choir; FestspielOrchester Göttingen
Dir: Laurence Cummings
rec: May 19, 2018 (live), Göttingen, Stadthalle
Accent - ACC 26415 (2 CDs) (© 2021) (1.27'23")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover, track-list & booklet
Te Deum in D 'Dettingen Te Deum' (HWV 283)a;
The Choice of Hercules (HWV 69)b
In the 1730s Handel started to compose oratorios on English texts. Their subjects were usually taken from the Bible, in particular the Old Testament, but he also wrote some oratorios on mythological subjects, such as Semele (1744) and Hercules (1745). They did not go down very well with the lovers of his biblical oratorios. That did not withhold Handel from returning to that kind of works. In 1750 he composed Alceste, but this was never performed. A substantial part of its music was then reused in The Choice of Hercules, which is called a drama in the work-list at gfhandel.org. It has no connection at all with Handel's oratorio Hercules.
It was first performed on 1 March 1751 at Covent Garden, following a performance of Alexander's Feast. It is basically a morality play, a genre that has been quite popular in the course of music history. Such pieces are about a particular person, usually a pars pro toto, representing mankind in general, who has to choose which path in life to follow: the path of worldly pleasures or the path of virtue. The earliest specimen of such a morality play is Emilio de' Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo. Obviously, as this was a product of the Counter Reformation, the content is religious: the path of virtue leads to Heaven, the path of worldly pleasures ends in Hell. The Choice of Hercules is a secular counterpart of such works. Wolfgang Sandberger, in his liner-notes to the recording under review here, summarizes the choice thus: "Pleasure bewitches him [Hercules] with her charms and promises a pleasant, carefree way of enjoyment and idleness. Virtue, for her part, enjoins Hercules to adopt a path full of sacrifice and ethical behaviour, which alone could promise fame and honour". If the sacred morality plays show the perspective of the choice that man is going to make, what is the end of the story in The Choice of Hercules? The Attendant of Pleasure promises "pleasure that can never cloy, love the source of endless joy". Virtue has something to offer that is a pagan version of Heaven: "Virtue will place thee in that blest abode, crown'd with immortal youth, among the Gods a God".
The Choice of Hercules is not the first work by Handel devoted to this subject. A previous works that can be ranked among the genre of the morality play is Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707), which was later, for a performance in 1737, reworked under the title of Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Veritŕ. In 1757 Handel would return to it once again, and perform a version in English under the title of The Triumph of Time and Truth. That piece is much longer and does much more fit the name 'oratorio'. The Choice of Hercules has rather the character of a cantata. Handel had already written cantatas of considerable length and with a full orchestra in Italy. The main characters are Hercules (alto), Virtue (soprano) and Pleasure (soprano). The latter is supported by an Attendant (tenor). Further attendants of Pleasure and attendants of virtue are represented by the choir.
There are not that many recordings of this work in the catalogue, which is rather surprising, given the quality of the music and the relative modest scoring. ArkivMusic lists just two: the present one and the one by Robert King (Hyperion, 2002). It is a long time ago that I have heard the latter, and therefore I can't really compare them. Even so, I dare to say that I prefer King, as I do not like the present recording very much. A mezzo-soprano in the role of Hercules is not such a good idea, not in the first place because he is a male character, but because of a lack of contrast with the two female voices. I am not impressed by the performances by each of them. They leave little to be desired in the way they portray their respective characters, but from a stylistic point of view their singing is pretty dreadful. Fflur Wyn is the worst; her singing is spoiled by an incessant and wide vibrato, whch makes her part virtually unlistenable. Rachel Kelly and Diana Moore are not as bad, but their parts suffer from the same evil. The only positive factor here is Nathan Haller, whose voice and singing I really enjoyed. But he has only one short aria to sing. For the choral parts Laurence Cummings invited the Christ Church Cathedral Choir, a choir of boys and men. It seems likely that such choirs were also used in Handel's time; mixed choirs as we know them today seem not to have existed at that time. However, this choir is way too big, and its way of singing roots in the ideals of the Victorian era. That is hardly suitable for Handel (or baroque music in general, for that matter). A choir like that of New College Oxford would have been a much better choice.
This disc is the commercial version of a live recording made during the Göttingen International Handel Festival 2018. The participation of the choir in The Choice of Hercules was probably the reason that Laurence Cummings decided to add the Dettingen Te Deum to the programma. Otherwise I can't think of any reason to do that, as there is no thematic connection between the two works.
Since his arrival in England Handel had written several compositions for official occasions, like the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 (Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate), the coronation of George II and Caroline in 1727, the wedding of the Prince of Wales in 1736 and the funeral of Queen Caroline in 1737. When England, though not officially at war with France, defeated the French army in the battle at Dettingen as part of the Austrian Succession War in June of 1743, a celebration in St Paul's Cathedral was expected, and a setting of the Te Deum would certainly be part of it. It was a favourite text for an occasion like that: I have only to remind the reader of Charpentier's famous setting which was also written at the occasion of a military victory, this time of Louis XIV.
However, for several reasons it took almost half a year before the celebration actually took place, in November. And it wasn't St Paul's Cathedral which was the scene of the event, but the Chapel Royal, a far more intimate space than the large cathedral. It is probably due to this that someone who probably took part in the performance called it 'noisy'. And indeed, Handel's setting has all the pomp and circumstance one expects from a setting of this text. A five-part choir is supported by an orchestra with strings, oboes, bassoons, 3 trumpets, timpani and bc. There are only brief solo sections, mainly for the bass. But it would be a mistake to consider it as only an exhibition of militaristic jubilation. There are several much more intimate passages too.
The performance of this work is the best part of this disc. The choir is more at home here, even though I would have preferred a different choir and style of singing. The bass solos are sung by Cody Quattlebaum, whom I had not heard before and whose voice and way of singing I really like. I hope to hear him again. There are smaller solo passages which are sung by members of the choir. It is rather odd that they are not mentioned. I have added their names in the header. They sing quite well, especially Michael Ash.
On balance, I find it hard to recommend this disc. The main work is pretty much a failure, and the Dettingen Te Deum is available in other recordings. A production like this leaves a bad feeling. It is rather sad if a festival that specializes in Handel and every year brings together some of the most devoted Handelians, can't come up with more stylish performances.
Johan van Veen (© 2021)
Christ Church Cathedral Choir