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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Music for the Monarchy

[I] "Peace & Celebration"
Janneke Dupré, Gabrielle Haigh, Sophie Horrocks, Helen Lilly, sopranoa; Alex Potter, altoa; William Cole, Hugo Popplewell, bassa
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; European Union Baroque Orchestra
Dir: Lars Ulrik Mortensen
rec: Sept 3, 2013 (live), London, St John's Smith Square
Obsidian - CD711 (© 2013) (69'34")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Concerto grosso in B flat, op. 3,2 (HWV 313); Let thy hand be strengthened (HWV 259); My heart is inditing (HWV 261); Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (HWV 74)a; The King shall rejoice (HWV 260)

[II] Water Music
Haydn Sinfonietta Wien
Dir: Manfred Huss
rec: March 2012, Grafenegg (A), Auditorium Grafenegg
BIS - BIS-2027 (© 2013) (61'42")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Overture Occasional Oratorio (HWV 62); Water Music (HWV 348-350)

[III] Water Music
Hannoversche Hofkapelle
Dir: Anne Röhrig
rec: June 28 - 30, 2013, Abtei Marienmünster (Konzerthaus)
MDG - 905 1828-6 (© 2013) (65'07")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Concerto grosso in A, op. 6,11 (HWV 329); Water Music (HWV 348-350)


When Handel settled in England he soon rose to prominence and overshadowed most of his English-born contemporaries. This is reflected by the many pirate editions of his music, especially keyboard works and chamber music. His connections with the monarchy and composition of music for special occasions of the state are another token of his reputation. The music on the three discs reviewed here bear witness to that.

In 1713 the War of the Spanish Succession which had started in 1701 came to an end with the Treaty of Utrecht. That was a reason to celebrate; in July of that year a Thanksgiving Service took place in St Paul's Cathedral in London. Handel was commissioned to compose a Te Deum to which he added a setting of the Jubilate. These two works have become known as the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate. However, the political settlements which were cemented with the Treaty date from an earlier time, and that allowed Handel to refer to the imminent peace in a composition of an earlier date, written at the occasion of the birthday of Queen Anne in February of that same year. It is divided into a number of sections for solo voice(s) and tutti each of which ends with the phrase: "The day that gave great Anna birth who fix'd a lasting peace on earth". Whereas the Te Deum and the Jubilate were performed as part of a state occasion, the Ode was one of the first compositions which connected Handel to the monarchy. Queen Anne had heard some of his choral music and was so impressed that she granted him an annuity of £200 for life. The Ode for th Birthday of Queen Anne was Handel's way to thank her for that. It is not clear whether the Queen has ever heard a performance of the Ode as at the time she was in poor health. In August 1714 she died, and this led to the introduction of the Hanoverian dynasty to Britain.

Handel's connections didn't end with the death of Queen Anne - on the contrary. The first Hanoverian monarch was nobody else than his employer since 1710: Georg Ludwig, prince elector of Hanover. He became the new King of Britain as George I. In 1717 he turned to Handel and commissioned him to compose music for a water party of a special kind, much lavisher than usual. It resulted in a suite of orchestral pieces which has become known as the Water Music. It has become one of Handel's most famous orchestral works and was soon arranged for other combinations of instruments, including two harpsichords. In the liner-notes to the MDG recording Brian Berryman suggests George I's arrangement of this water party with music by the most famous composer in England could have been inspired by the rift between him and his son, the Prince of Wales. "[The] Prince had set up a competing household with lavish parties for the disaffected nobility, while the King avoided public appearances and rejected pomp and pageantry during the early years of his reign. The Water Music, as part of the royal PR machine, was intended to raise the King's public profile above that of his son's and endear him to his sceptical British subjects".

It was for the coronation of the Prince of Wales as George II on 11 October 1727 that Handel wrote the four Coronation Anthems which were performed in Westminster Abbey. The composition of such music was usually the task of the organist and composer to the Chapel Royal, but it seems that George I insisted that Handel should deliver the music. Shortly before he had made Handel a naturalized British citizen, which lifted a blockade for the commission. Handel himself chose the texts from the King James translation of the Bible. The anthems have become a trademark of Handel's choral style and belong to his most frequently-performed works. Zadok the Priest is the most popular of the four and has been performed at every coronation ceremony since 1727.

When historical performance practice emerged one of the main differences with tradition was the size of choirs and orchestras. Since then we have become used to small-scale ensembles, sometimes even with one voice per part as in Bach's sacred music. However, the performance practice at the time was more differentiated than we probably tend to think. It is known that Arcangelo Corelli performed his concerti grossi sometimes with a large orchestra, even including winds. There is much documentary evidence of large-scale performances of Handel's works after his death, but such large ensembles were even quite common in his own life-time. During the coronation ceremony Handel had a choir of about 50 singers and an orchestra of far over 100. The musical effect was not that satisfying, especially due to the large reverberation of Westminster Abbey. William Wake, Archbishop of Canterbury, noted down on his Order of Service: "The anthems in confusion; all irregular in the music." I don't know of any modern recording which attempts to recreate such a large-scale performance. The European Union Baroque Orchestra comprises nine violins, three violas, two cellos, double bass, two oboes, three trumpets, bassoon, timpani and harpsichord. The Choir of Clare College Cambridge consists of 27 singers. Such an ensemble cannot produce a sound which even approaches that of the 1727 ceremony. However, even considering the relatively small number of performers the sound could have been more robust and the performances could have made more impact. Especially the playing of the strings is rather bland. The episodes with full orchestra come off best, but in smaller scorings there is a lack of grandeur. I have never been very impressed by the singing of the Choir of Clare College, and this recording doesn't change my perception. Some singers allow themselves to use vibrato which has a specially damaging effect in the semi-chorus in My heart is inditing which is the least satisfying parts of this disc. The instrumental introduction to Zadok the Priest could be much more dramatic; the articulation and accentuation are under par. In addition I have to say that the performances also suffer from the dull acoustic of St John's Smith Square.

The Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne is reasonably well done. Alex Potter sings nicely, although the famous opening of this piece, 'Eternal source of light divine', a duet of alto and trumpet, is a little disappointing. The performance is a bit hesitant and the tempo is too slow. The other solo parts in this piece are sung by members of the choir. Most of them do pretty well, although Gabrielle Haigh uses too much vibrato and Hugo Popplewell lacks a bit presence. All in all I am not impressed by these performances of some of Handel's masterpieces.

The Water Music is another work where Handel had a rather large orchestra at his disposal, comprising about 50 players, with a doubling of the wind parts. The line-up of Haydn Sinfonietta Wien and of the Hannoversche Hofkapelle is about half that size. One could argue that a performance in the open air - and especially on a barge on the Thames - requires a larger ensemble than a recording in a studio. That said, I would have preferred a larger ensemble than we have here. Both ensembles make use of a new edition of 2004 which is based on a manuscript score from 1718 which is the earliest source as the autograph has been lost. This manuscript is especially significant in regard to the order of the pieces. It shows that the traditional division into three suites is not in line with the way the Water Music was originally performed.

From the sources it may be concluded that the performance as a whole lasted about 60 minutes. Both recordings are shorter, but a comparison is difficult as we don't know how long the pauses between the various sections may have been during the first performance and whether these have been part of the timing. There are some differences between the two performances in the tempo of some movements, but overall these are hardly substantial. Huss decided to play all the repeats, whereas in the performance of the Hannoversche Hofkapelle some have been omitted. There is more extensive ornamentation in some movements from Haydn Sinfonietta Wien, but in regard to articulation and accentuation the Hannoversche Hofkapelle is more convincing. In both recordings the overture lacks grandeur; Haydn Sinfonietta is especially abrupt here.

In the end it is probably a matter of taste which one is preferred; both are good, but not ideal. In both cases the fillers are well played; the overture to the Occasional Oratorio is the lesser-known of the two pieces. Here we find another example of Handel's borrowing practice as he uses material from the Musique de table of his friend Telemann.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Alex Potter
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
European Union Baroque Orchestra
Hannoversche Hofkapelle
Haydn Sinfonietta Wien

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