on 18 October 2002
The music on this well-compiled Decca set has previously been issued on individual discs (under the L'Oiseau-Lyre label) and in different combinations, so nothing new here. But this present offering is probably the most attractive of the lot so far as well as an outstanding bargain. It finds The Academy of Ancient Music in top form under its seasoned maestros Christopher Hogwood and Simon Preston, both devoted Handelians. Authentic instruments are used throughout, but there is little of that 'period-instrument whine' which sometimes mars other pioneering efforts from the late 70's and early 80's. Preston, however, opts for irritatingly brisk tempi in the Italianate Birthday Ode, especially in the opening aria 'Eternal Source of Light Divine', which thus loses some of its extraordinary serene beauty. But there is a lot to admire here, nowhere more than in the fresh counter-tenor of James Bowman, and the following choruses are pressed home with appropriate pomp and grandeur. The comparatively rare Foundling Hospital Anthem (Blessed are they who considereth the poor...) is immediately recognisable for its borrowed moments, which are Handel at his finest. The Anthem concludes with an illustrious rendering of the 'Hallelujah' chorus, better known, of course, from The Messiah. What remains from Alceste is an overture in D minor and some incidental music, but it is superb. The overture itself is impressively dramatic, and so is the grande entrée for the main protagonists Admetus and Alceste. There is also a string of tuneful choruses and a series of solo items, for some of which Handel found use elsewhere in his prolific output. The solemn Utrecht Te Deum & Jubilate in D major completes this set in a most convincing manner, and its inclusion here is a much happier choice than the former decision to pair it with Vivaldi's D major Gloria (on O-L 443178-2). All in all, a very useful complement to the discerning Handelian's musical library. The sound, too, is very good, warm and spacious in choruses; yet admirably attentive to detail elsewhere.
When some of this music was first performed in 1713 it was described as `Excellent in its Performance, as it was Exquisite in its Composure'. The modern performances making up these two discs are also excellent, so is the music as the early critic said, so are the recordings (but read on a little), and so is the actual selection of comparatively unfamiliar works of the master (unfamiliar with one glaring exception!).
To get everything off on the right footing, I suggest that you may find you want a slightly higher volume-setting than usual. I found the effect a little dull until I did this, but it never looked back after that. What makes a good start so important this time is the first track, the extraordinary `Eternal Source' that kicks off the Birthday Ode for the sickly Queen Anne. If there is one contentious performance over two well-filled discs, it is this, because Preston's speed is just slightly on the brisk side. As performed by Robert King (on a disc called Music for Royal Occasions) this number has a dreamy languorous quality - very effective certainly, but I wonder whether this way of doing it is really authentic in style. I suspect that it's going to come down to each listener's personal preference, because both conductors are experts in the baroque idiom, so that we can't appeal to authority to decide the issue. As for the rest of the Ode, I mark this issue just a little higher than King's on two grounds. For one thing I like Preston's use of a woman contralto (the excellent and un-hooty Shirley Minty) as well as a countertenor although that is the admirable James Bowman. The other point is the clarity of the choral work, something attributable to the recording rather than to the performance I'm sure.
Preston directs the same choral and orchestral forces in the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate, but there are some slight changes among the soloists. The countertenor this time is Charles Brett, and instead of Martyn Hill we have Rogers Covey-Crump and Paul Elliott as tenors. Perhaps it also needs noting that while in the Birthday Ode the sopranos are Judith Nelson and Emma Kirkby in the Utrecht pieces they are Emma Kirkby and Judith Nelson. Excellent in their Performance, all of them. As to the music itself, the Utrecht works date themselves to the year of the Treaty that ended the War of the Spanish succession in 1713, and the Ode seems to belong to the same year if I have understood the matter. In my own opinion they are all top-class Handel, but the Te Deum, taken on its own, is a much smaller and less grandiose effort than the epic masterpiece that Handel was to turn out much later to mark the comic-opera victory at Dettingen. I took the trouble to put that magnificent work out of my thoughts, and I recommend other listeners to do the same. The Utrecht Te Deum is a serious-minded and dignified composition, becoming quite dark in tone in its later verses. The Jubilate jubilates to a certain extent as it has to, but even here the tone has a sombre touch to it, and both works repay acquaintance.
It was in 1749 that Handel assembled a set of biblical texts to go with some of his earlier music in forming an Anthem for the Foundling Hospital to raise funds for that institution, now ten years old. It makes a very coherent and distinguished composition altogether, proving if the thing needs proving that good music can stay good when recycled, as we should all know from Bach's Mass in B minor. The liner note provides the biblical chapter and verse, mainly from the Psalms. However the final chorus is to texts from Revelations. I shall resist the considerable temptation to give chapter and verse only and not the words, but instead of being such a foolish spoilsport I shall let out that the text begins `Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth'; and very well performed it is too.
The final item is particularly interesting and unusual, and I would recommend this set for this item alone. It is some incidental music, from Handel's later years again, to a play by Smollett on the theme of Alceste. The liner note (by Lindsay Kemp) suggests that the musical idiom has signs of the French style. One way or the other, it is recognisably by Handel, but far from typical of him. The idiom is melodious and listener-friendly, and I enjoy it as just a kind of concert. Hogwood is the director this time, but the performance shares most of its performers with the other works. One feature that I found interesting was the statement that the chorus consists of only four singers. They produce a formidable volume of tone for just four of them, but there we go I suppose. Apparently Smollett's play never made it to the stage, and indeed the versification recalls what Housman said about 18th century poetry always using the wrong word instead of the right. How about
`That when bright Aurora's beams
Glad the world with golden streams
He, like Phoebus, blithe and gay,
May retaste the healthful day.'
Thank goodness for the music is all one can say.
The recordings are from 1978 and 1980, the sound is perfectly good so long as you remember to boost the volume a little, and the liner note is distinctly helpful and informative. This is as interesting an issue as has come my way in the last year or two.