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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne

Hélène Guilmette, Sophie Klußmanna, soprano; Andreas Scholl, alto; Malcolm E. Bennett, tenora; Andreas Wolf, bass
Vocalconsort Berlin; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Dir: Marcus Creed

rec: Feb 2008, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902041 (© 2009) (56'24")

Dixit Dominus (HWV 232)a; Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (HWV 74)

The combination of the two compositions on this disc may seem a bit strange at first. But there wasn't much difference between the years of composition: the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne was composed in 1713 and the Dixit Dominus in 1707. In addition the reasons for composing them weren't very different either: the former for a birthday, the latter for the nameday of the Spanish King Felipe V, which was celebrated on 1 May in Frascati near Rome.

The author of the text of the Ode was Ambrose Philips who praises the Queen's virtues as peacemaker. This is particularly expressed in the first chorus (with alto solo): "The day that gave great Anna birth, who fix'd a lasting peace on earth". This is used as a refrain and refers to the Peace of Utrecht of 1713 which marked the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. The opening movement is one of Handel's most beautiful creations: a duet of alto and trumpet, with strings playing chords, on the text "Eternal source of light divine! With double warmth thy beams display, and with distinguish'd glory shine to add a lustre to this day."

After the first chorus we hear a duet of two sopranos, which - after the refrain - is followed by another solo for alto. The next refrain is for chorus with soli for soprano and alto, which is followed by a duet of alto and bass and the refrain. Then another duet for two sopranos follows, the refrain is again for chorus with soli for soprano and alto, then we get a solo for bass, the refrain again, and the piece closes with a chorus for alto solo and double choir "United nations shall combine to distant climes the sound convey that Anna's actions are divine."

The performance of the Ode is not really good, I'm afraid. I compared it with Robert King's recording (Hyperion, 1988) which in almost every respect is superior to this new recording. In the first movement Andreas Scholl's voice is too weak, in particular in contrast to the trumpet. But the worst thing is that the expression - the Affekt which Klaus-Martin Bresgott pays special attention to in the booklet - is very limited. In comparison Robert King is a little slower - rightly so, in my view - and James Bowman really explores what this movement is about, and the blending with the trumpet is much better. There is some magic here which Creed's performance fails to deliver.

Hélène Guilmette's singing is spoilt by her consistent vibrato, which also makes the duets with Andreas Scholl less than ideal. In Robert King's performance Gillian Fisher is not without it, but her vibrato is less penetrating and her voice blends quite well with Bowman's. In the aria for alto 'Let flocks and herds' Robert King creates a real pastoral mood which lacks in the new recording. Here James Bowman is superior to Andreas Scholl in realising the expression of this aria. The duet of alto and bass creates another problem as Andreas Wolf's voice is rather harsh and loud and as a result the balance between the two voices is not really good. The orchestral playing is rigid and rather stiff; the rhythmic pulse is much better in King's recording.
The best part of Harmonia mundi's recording of the Ode is the bass aria 'Let envy then conceal her head' which is given a muscular performance by Andreas Wolf and the orchestra. At the same time one could argue that this is probably a bit overdone; Michael George and Robert King are a little more modest, but also quite convincing.
The Vocalconsort Berlin is a good ensemble but the Choir of New College is superior and delivers some powerful and very differentiated singing which I am missing a little in Creed's recording. So all in all this new recording is no alternative to Robert King's.

The texture of Handel's setting of Psalm 110 (Vulgate: 109), Dixit Dominus, points to the past as it is written for five voices and 5-part strings with basso continuo. The solo passages are embedded in the tutti, or, as Klaus-Martin Bresgott puts it, "solo voices frequently emerge from the chorus". This is important to note, since this causes one of the main problems of the performance.
Here the soloists are not members of the choir, like in the recording by the Balthasar-Neumann-Chor and Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble, directed by Thomas Hengelbrock (deutsche harmonia mundi). This results in a strong stylistic coherence between soli and tutti which is largely absent in Marcus Creed's recording. That is particularly the case in the opening section and in the sixth, 'Dominus a dextris tuis'.

But there is more. The second section, 'Virgam virtutis tuae', is too slow and not powerful enough, which contradicts the text: "The Lord shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies". The duet 'De torrente in via bibet' is simply awful: the heavy vibrato of the two sopranos destroys the subtle expression of Handel's setting of this text: "He shall drink of the brook in the way: therefore he shall lift up the head".
On the whole choir and orchestra are alright here, but as Thomas Hengelbrock's interpretation is more differentiated and more subtle and contains a considerably stronger amount of expression, that recording is preferable by far to this new production.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Vocalconsort Berlin

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