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George Frideric HANDEL (1785 - 1759): "Coronation Anthems"

Le Concert Spirituel
Dir: Hervé Niquet

rec: June 2021, Boulogne-Billancourt, La Seine Musicale (auditorium)
Alpha - 868 (© 2022) (68'05")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Let thy hand be strengthened (HWV 259); My heart is inditing (HWV 261); Te Deum in D 'Dettingen Te Deum' (HWV 283); The King shall rejoice (HWV 260); Zadok the Priest (HWV 258)

Later this year, the United Kingdom will see the coronation of a new king, Charles III, succeeding his deceased mother, Elizabeth II. It is very likely that part of the coronation ceremony will be a performance of Zadok the Priest, one of the four Coronation Anthems that Handel composed in 1727. This piece has been part of each coronation ceremony since then.

On 11 June 1727 George I, the first of the Hanoverian monarchs, had died, and three days later his only son and heir was proclaimed king by the Privy Council. The coronation ceremony was to take place on 4 October in Westminster Abbey, but was postponed one week because of the danger of flooding near the Abbey. According to tradition, the music for the service was to be written by the Organist and Composer of the Chapel Royal. That was William Croft at the time, but he died on 14 August. The Bishop of Salisbury recommended Maurice Greene as his successor, but only at 4 September he was officially appointed. However, on 9 September it was announced that "Mr Hendel, the famous Composer to the opera, is appointed by the King to compose the Anthem at the Coronation which is to be sung in Westminster Abbey at the Grand Ceremony". That may not have come as a surprise, as in 1723 he had been given the title of Composer for the Chapel Royal.

There were quite some differences between the order of the service, as it was agreed by the Privy Council on 20 September, and what was actually performed. The reason may well have been that at that time Handel had already written most of the music. Handel did not like the fact that he was given the texts he was expected to set. According to a later anecdote, he took offence, as he thought it implied his ignorance of the Scriptures. He is reported to have said: "I have read my Bible very well, and shall chuse for myself".

Handel composed four anthems which were to be performed during various stages of the ceremony. Let thy hand be strengthened was part of the Recognition, Zadok the Priest was performed at the Anointing, and The King shall rejoice during the Crowning. My heart is inditing was to be performed during the Coronation of the Queen. The whole ceremony was reconstructed by Robert King, and recorded for Hyperion. The Coronation Anthems are usually performed separately, but it would be nice if performers would at least observe the order in which they were originally performed. That is usually not the case, and that goes for the present recording as well. As many performers, Hervé Niquet opens with Zadok the Priest, which is followed by Let thy hand be strenghthened. The other two are performed in the historically correct order.

It is not exactly known how many performers were involved; a report of the rehearsals mentions a total of 40 singers and 160 players. That is almost certainly highly exaggerated, but there can be no doubt that the size of the choir and the orchestra was pretty large. Niquet has tried to get as closely as possible to the apparent size of the performing forces. His choir comprises 35 singers (14/7/7/7) and his orchestra ten violins, four violas, four cellos, two double basses, ten oboes, six bassoons, eight trumpets, two timpani and organ. It is notable that the line-up is in favour of the winds, and one wonders what are the reasons for that. I have not found any indication that they outnumbered the strings in 1727. As one may notice, there is no mention of solo voices. There are no solo episodes in these pieces, but it is generally accepted that some passages may have been allocated to a section of the choir, a kind of semi-chorus. This is practised here.

The performance is one of hit and miss. The singing and playing is generally very good. One of the assets is the use of trumpets without unhistorical vent holes. The principal trumpeter is Jean-François Madeuf, the pioneer of playing such trumpets. It substantially contributes to the colour of the instrumental ensemble and makes it all the more impressive. Niquet likes speedy tempos, but overall only a few sections are faster than in other recordings. Even so, the tempi are often too high in relation to the recording venue. I have no idea how large it is, but as this recording was made under studio conditions, one may asssume that the space was empty. That has a major effect on the acoustic. It is not that the reverberation is that large at the end of a section, but it has a negative impact on the articulation in the faster sections. A striking example is the instrumental introduction to Zadok the Priest. It is also played too loud. I have not seen Handel's autograph, but all the modern editions I have seen, indicate that it should start 'soft' or even 'pp' (pianissimo). Here Handel creates a strong amount of tension, which leads to a choral 'explosion' on the words "Zadok the Priest". It is one of the reasons that this piece has become so popular, but little of that tension comes off here. Niquet emphasizes the 'pomp and circumstance', but overlooks the theatrical and expressive aspects of these anthems. It is typical for his approach that the silence before the closing phrase in the Alleluia of The King shall rejoice is nullified by a drum roll. That was a bad decision.

The text of the Te Deum was frequently set by composers for special occasions, such as a peace treaty or a military victory. Handel had written a Te Deum - together with a Jubilate - at the occasion of the Peace of Utrecht, which brought the War of the Spanish Succession to a close (1713). In June 1743 George II had led an English army to victory against the French at the Battle of Dettingen, which took place during the War of the Austrian Succession. This event inspired Handel to compose a Te Deum; the scoring was for five solo voices (SSATB), five-part choir and an orchestra that included three trumpets and timpani. He did so in the expectation of a large-scale thanksgiving service in St Paul's Cathedral. It did not happen, though. David Vickers, in his liner-notes to Stepen Layton's recording (Hyperion, 2008), gives various reasons for this, among them the fact that the political and military importance of this victory were limited. Moreover, "it would have provoked outrage from opposition politicians eager to point out how Britain's interests were often being relegated to those of the royal family's German province." Any performance of the Te Deum was not to take place before George's return to England from Hanover, which took place in November. It was only on 27 November that the Te Deum was performed, not in the spacious St Paul's Cathedral, but in the much more modest space of the Chapel Royal. "[It] is difficult to imagine that there was sufficient room in it for both the required performers and a congregation, although the next day's Daily Advertiser confirmed that there was a congregation (...)" (Vickers).

Given Handel's concept of this piece, it makes much sense to include it in a recording of the four Coronation Anthems. We do not know how many performers participated in November 1743; it seems unlikely that the ensembles were as large as during the coronation ceremony. One thing is entirely clear: the work includes solo parts. Here Niquet decided to allocate them to a semi-chorus, just as in the Coronation Anthems. That seems a mistake.

One cannot resist the impression of this disc. The splendour of Handel's music and the occasions for which he wrote it, comes off very well. However, there are serious shortcomings, and the interpretation is rather one-sided. It is an interesting contribution to the Handel discography, but cannot really convince.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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