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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Anthems and Psalms

[I] "Chandos Anthems"
Emma Kirkby, soprano; Iestyn Davies, alto; James Gilchrist, tenor; Neal Davies, bass
The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; The Academy of Ancient Music
Dir: Stephen Layton

rec: June 29 - July 1, 2008, Cambridge, Trinity College (chapel)
Hyperion - CDA67737 (© 2009) (66'09")

[II] "O praise the Lord - Psalms and Anthems"
Gli Scarlattisti; Capella Principale
Dir: Jochen M. Arnold

rec: Feb 1 - 3, 2008, Reutlingen-Gönningen, Evangelische Kirche
Carus - 83.421 (© 2008) (70'27")

[I] Let God arise (HWV 256a); My song shall be alway (HWV 252); O praise the Lord with one consent (HWV 254)
[II] I will magnify thee (HWV 250b)a; Laudate pueri (HWV 237)b; Nisi Dominus (HWV 238)c; O praise the Lord with one consent (HWV 254)d

[II] [soli] Iris-Anna Deckertb, Susan Eitrichd, soprano; Jan Hermann, Franz Vitzthum, altoacd; Dieter Wagnerd, Andreas Welleracd, tenor; Jens Hamann, bassacd

When Handel arrived in England he immediately started to compose operas. But he also showed his ability to write sacred music for soloists, choir and orchestra. He composed a Te Deum and Jubilate for the celebrations of the Peace of Utrecht and the 'Caroline' Te Deum as well as an anthem for the Chapel Royal. It was not the first time he wrote this kind of music as in Italy he had already composed psalms on Latin texts. As he was probably the greatest 'recycler' in the history of music he reused material from them, and in particular from Dixit Dominus (HWV 232). He did so especially in Let God arise (HWV 256a), one of the so-called Chandos Anthems.

In 1717 Handel joined the household of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon, who later acquired the title of Duke of Chandos. The Earl built a mansion on the estate at Cannons, near Edgware. Here he established his own chapel, consisting of singers and players. For Cannons Handel wrote some dramatic pieces, like the oratorio Esther and the masque Acis and Galatea. But he also composed 11 anthems, which are generally known as Chandos Anthems. Some of them he later reworked for performances in the Chapel Royal.

It is common use today to perform these anthems with soloists, choir and orchestra. But, as Anthony Hicks writes in the liner notes of the Hyperion recording, the number of musicians in the Duke of Chandos' chapel were rather limited: "perhaps only three or four trebles on the top choral line and just one or two singers on each of the lower parts". It may be true that these anthems are as effective with small forces in a small building as with large forces in a large church or concert hall, as he states, it seems to me that this is mainly used as an argument to justify a scoring which is contradictory to the circumstances in which the pieces were originally performed. I am not aware of any recording which tries to recreate those circumstances.

The number of singers and players in the performances on the Hyperion disc is much larger than the Duke of Chandos could come up with. The choir consists of 37 singers (13/9/6/9) and the orchestra contains 11 violins, 2 cellos, 2 double basses and organ, plus oboe and bassoon. There are no viola players involved as all the anthems are scored without viola parts. A difference in the number of singers and players between now and then is more than just a matter of historical interest. In a small ensemble there is a natural coherence between the soli and the tutti, as the solo parts are mostly performed by members of the ensemble. That is not the case here: the anthems which were originally conceived as ensemble pieces have turned into works for solo voices and choir. The anthems contain several passages for one voice and tutti, and with a small ensemble these are much easier to realise than with soloists and a full-scale choir.

Putting all these considerations aside I have to say that I am less than impressed by the performances on the Hyperion disc. The sound of the choir is rather dull and uninteresting - but that is a matter of personal taste, of course. What is much more serious is that the performances are bland and undifferentiated. This is partly due to the largely legato singing and playing, which I find just unbearable. I can't understand how a conductor is able to perform a score with so little differentiation in articulation and dynamics. The playing of the orchestra doesn't breathe, the vocal parts don't speak - in short, these interpretations are totally at odds with the aethetics of the time, based on rhetorics and Affekt.

Ironically it is Emma Kirkby who shows how to sing baroque music. She articulates well, emphasizes words and phrases, and her text expression is exemplary. Listen only to the way she sings the three opening words in the aria 'God's tender mercy' from the anthem O praise the Lord with one consent. Equally impressive is her performance of the first vocal section of My song shall be alway, a solo with chorus. The performance of this anthem is marred by the extensive vibrato of Neal Davies and in particular James Gilchrist in their respective solos.

It is the second anthem on this disc, Let God arise, which comes off best. The opening chorus, which contains strong reminiscences of Handel's setting of Dixit Dominus mentioned above, is well sung by the choir. James Gilchrist sings his solo, 'Like as the smoke vanisheth', quite well, with good text expression and appropriate contrasts. The balance between alto and bass in 'O sing unto God' is good, which is remarkable considering the fact that Neal Davies has a powerful voice, whereas Iestyn Davies is rather weak in comparison. This is probably largely due to the range of the alto part which is in fact a little too low for a male alto. A high tenor - like a French hautecontre - is more suitable for the second vocal part in Handel's Chandos Anthems. That is even more clear in O praise the Lord with one consent. Iestyn Davies sounds rather uncomfortable in the solo 'Praise him, all ye that in his house', in particular on the low notes where his voice continuously wobbles. In this anthem Neal Davies gives his best performance on this disc, with a beautifully sung 'That God is great', using the agility and power of his voice to good effect.

One may gather from this that the performances are not without merits. But these are overshadowed by the general blandness of the interpretation by Stephen Layton. I shall return to this disc only for the contributions of Emma Kirkby, who is still a monument of good taste and style and unbeatable in the realm of text expression. But for the performances of the Chandos Anthems I shall stick to the recordings by Harry Christophers which are not ideal but have more to offer than we get here.

From the German label Carus we get another disc with two Chandos Anthems, which are combined with two Latin psalm settings. The choir and orchestra are smaller than the forces on the Hyperion disc, they are still too large in comparison to what was available in Cannons. The tragedy of this disc is that on the other hand the forces are rather too small to deliver convincing performances of the Italian psalms.

What speaks in favour of this recording is that the soloists are from the ensemble which results in a greater coherence than in the Hyperion recording. But the interpretations are not really more contrasting or more differentiated. The performances of the solo sections are often unsatisfying, because of blandness or a lack of subtlety. There are too little dynamic accents in the orchestral playing and the performances of the vocal parts show some technical flaws.

This recording is not very inspiring and hardly brings out the composer's genius. Like the Hyperion recording this disc is no alternative to either Christophers' recording of the Chandos Anthems nor to the existing recordings of Handel's Latin psalms (for instance Andrew Parrott's recording of the 'Carmelite Vespers').

We have still to wait for a recording which aims at performing the Chandos Anthems with the forces the Duke of Chandos had at his disposal.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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