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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): "Dettingen Te Deum - Zadok the Priest"

Christopher Lowry, altoa; Robin Firth, tenorb; Neal Davies, bassc; Richard Marlow, organd
Choir of Trinity College, Cambridgee; The Academy of Ancient Musicf
Dir: Stephen Layton

rec: June 20 - July 1, 2007, Cambridge Trinity College
Hyperion - CDA67678 ( 2008) (60'33")

Concerto for organ and orchestra in A (HWV 296a)df; Te Deum in D 'Dettingen' (HWV 283)abcef; Zadok the Priest (HWV 258)ef

The programme on this disc seems to miss real cohesion. The combination of the Dettingen Te Deum and the Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest is plausible enough, as both works were written for state occasions, but the inclusion of an organ concerto seems a bit odd.

The earliest piece on this disc is the anthem Zadok the Priest, one of four anthems written for the coronation of George II and Caroline in Westminster Abbey in October 1727. Of the four anthems this one has become the most popular; ever since its creation it has been performed at the occasion of coronation ceremonies in Britain. As it is of little length and strictly choral - without any solos - it is also a very popular choral work, and is frequently performed and recorded. I don't think the interpretation on this disc will go down into history as the standard of how it is to be performed. The pompous nature of the piece comes through well enough, but it is the instrumental introduction which is disappointing. I don't understand why it is played almost completely legato, and why there is a lack of dynamic accents. This introduction lacks every amount of tension which leads to the choral outburst on 'Zadok the Priest'.

This is indicative of the playing of the orchestra on the whole disc, I'm afraid. The Concerto for organ and orchestra in A dates probably from 1739 and could have been played during a performance of the ode Alexander's Feast. Richard Marlow and the orchestra play well, but the interpretation isn't really exciting and just can't compete with some of the best recordings available, in particular Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Handel's organ concertos give the soloist some room for improvisation, and that freedom is used here, but I am not impressed by Richard Marlow's proceedings in this respect.

The main work on this disc is the Dettingen Te Deum. 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 above-mentioned 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 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.

But 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 at 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. As David Vickers writes in his excellent programme notes there are several much more intimate passages too.

It is here that this performance fails to convince. The playing and singing is too often flat, mainly due to a lack of articulation and a lack of dynamic accents. And the use of the messa di voce on long notes would also have helped to bring more contrast in this performance. I am not enthusiastic about the contributions of the soloists either. Christopher Lowrey, a member of the choir, sings the alto solos, and he does so well, but his voice is a bit too weak at the lower end of his tessitura. Neal Davies is a seasoned singer who performes with the leading orchestras and conductors both in early music and in later repertoire. Often I have admired his performances, but here I find him disappointing, partly because of his vibrato which is more than what is appropriate in a work like this.

In short, this disc fails to deliver the expressive and rhetorical character of Handel's music. I also have to say that this choir, as good as it is, can't compete with the best all-male choirs of Britain. I sincerely believe that Handel's English choral music needs a choir of boys and men to really come to life and show its full colours.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

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