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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): "Music for the Chapel Royal"

Choir of the Chapel Royal, Musicians Extra-ordinary
Dir: Andrew Gant

rec: July 2005, London, St James's Palace (Chapel Royal)
Naxos - 8.557935 ( 2007) (60'55")

As Pants the hart (HWV 251a) (extr); As Pants the hart (HWV 251d); I will magnify thee (HWV 250b); Let God arise (HWV 256b); O Sing unto the Lord (HWV 249a)

Ralph Warman, Jacob Ferguson-Lobo, Oliver Fincham, Mark Loveday, Alexander May, Joseph Jackson, Ivo Almond, Daniel Barber, Allan Ross, Orlando Byron, treble; James Bowman, Michael McGuire, alto; Ben Breakwell, Jerome Finnis, tenor; Andrew Ashwin, Maciek O'Shea, bass

In order to understand the context in which the music recorded here was written, it is relevant to quote Andrew Gant's explanation of the term 'Chapel Royal'. It is "strictly a collective for the body of clergy, musicians and vestry officers attached to the Royal Household, and its function today is the same as it was in Handel's (...): to sing the regular services in the Chapel of whichever Palace the monarch wishes, and to accompany the monarch to major state services and other events elsewhere as commanded." It was only in 1714, shortly after Handel started composing music for the Chapel Royal, that it became based and sang services in the building known as 'Chapel Royal'. It is this building which is still the base of the present Chapel Royal which can be heard on this disc.

Some anthems here belong to the earliest compositions on English texts by Handel after his arrival in England. Some of these were reworked later when Handel started to compose for James Brydges, known as the Duke of Chandos, at his house Cannons in Middlesex. The letters added to the catalogue numbers refer to the several versions of these anthems. As pants the hart and O sing unto the Lord were originally composed for the Chapel Royal and then reworked for Cannons; the former is heard here in the latest version, written for the Chapel Royal when Handel returned to composing for its services. The other two anthems were originally composed for Cannons and reworked later for the Chapel Royal. So what he have here is four anthems as they were performed in the Chapel Royal (although there is some doubt whether HWV 251d was ever really performed). In addition two movements from the very first version of As pants the hart are recorded.

Let God arise is in four sections and written - or rather adapted - for a national service of Thanksgiving. This had become a tradition, in particular under William III, when services of Thanksgiving were often held to mark the success of military campaigns. By the time of George I's rule they were held at the occasion of the arrival of members of the royal family from trips to their native Hanover. This anthem starts with a chorus, in which the text "Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered" is vividly depicted by descending figures through all the voices. It is performed well, but it could have been better if the articulation of the choir had been a little sharper and the trebles had sung with a little more power. Here it is just a little too harmless. The next section is a duet, but the alto and bass don't sing together: first the bass sings the first half of the 'duet', then the alto takes over for the second half. Andrew Ashwin is a bit too weak, in particular at the top of his range, whereas James Bowman gives a very fine account of his part. Next follows a real duet of alto and bass, and here the balance between Bowman and Maciek O'Shea is less than ideal. The bass has a little tremolo in his voice, which makes his singing not very pleasant. The anthem is closed by a chorus on the words "Blessed be God. Alleluja."

I will magnify thee consists of six sections, the first and last of which are adapted from the Cannons version of the same anthem, whereas the other four movements are reworkings of movements from three other anthems written for Cannons. It begins with a magnificent solo for alto with an obbligato part for the oboe, brilliantly performed here by James Bowman and Katharina Spreckelsen. It is followed by a duet of alto and bass, in which the voices of Maciek O'Shea and Michael McGuire don't blend very well. Next is a chorus with vocal quartet: the singing is good but the balance between the two groups much less so. There are two further duets for alto and bass, and here again the voices of James Bowman and Maciek O'Shea don't match very well. Rather well-done is the alto solo "Righteousness and equity are the habitation of thy seat" by Michael McGuire.

As pants the hart is based on a text from John Church's Divine Harmony of 1712, which contains the lyrics of the anthems that were part of the Chapel's repertoire at the time. The first section is set for a vocal sextet and chorus. Here the top part is sung by two trebles, perhaps to make sure it can be heard. This is a wise decision as the trebles of this choir seem not to have very strong and penetrating voices - certainly not in comparison with trebles in some other British all-male choirs. A very nice section in this anthem is the duet for the two altos with an obbligato cello; James Bowman and Michael McGuire have very different voices, but they match well, and the cello part is beautifully played by Joseph Crouch.

In O sing unto the Lord James Bowman is in fine form in the opening section, whereas his colleague Michael McGuire gives a nice performance of the solo "Sing unto the Lord, and praise his name". The anthem contains an accompagnetto for bass, which is followed by a bass aria. They are given to two different singers - a most strange decision. Andrew Ashwin sings the accompagnetto, and I had liked him to sing the aria as well, because he is by far the best of the two basses.

The disc ends with two sections from the first version of As pants the hart. This is delightful music, which I can't remember having heard before. First comes the second section, "Tears are my daily food: while thus they say, where is now thy God?" It is a solo for alto with basso continuo. James Bowman gives a deeply moving account of this most expressive aria. It is followed by an equally expressive duet for soprano and alto: "Why so full of grief, O my soul, why so disquieted within me?" James Bowman very sensitively adapts his singing to the much softer voice of treble Jacob Ferguson-Lobo, who sings well, but is a little short on expression.

I have mixed feelings about this disc. It brings music which is seldom performed, and that makes it recommendable, in particular as Handel's music is splendid. The choir sings better than on previous discs I had to review, and that is good to notice. James Bowman is great, as always. But the balance between and the blending of the voices - in particular the adult singers - is problematic. And the choruses are sometimes lacking clarity, which isn't only due to the acoustical circumstances. Despite the shortcomings I recommend this disc: there is enough to enjoy and the music is too good to be missed.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

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