This is a brilliant idea for a coupling of two fine baroque choral works from Harry Christophers and The Sixteen choir and orchestra. Agostino Steffani was Handel's senior by more than 30 years, very much the revered master while Handel was still a young man learning his art. The two met on more than one occasion, Steffani readily recognising the young man's genius and putting in a good word for him in appropriate quarters. Yet Handel's "Dixit Dominus" was a youthful work written in 1707, long before Steffani's "Stabat Mater" which was the Italian's final, mature masterpiece composed in 1727-28 shortly before he died.
The two works form a fascinating and well-contrasted programme. "Stabat Mater" opens with a lovely movement for solo soprano to a graceful instrumental accompaniment, followed by a number of alternating solo and choral movements. The many solo passages are beautifully sung, with especially fine contributions from tenor Jeremy Budd and soprano Elin Manahan Thomas. Choir and orchestra do an excellent job throughout, although the recording balance tends to favour voices at the expense of instruments and the texture in the full choral passages is less clear than one might have wished. But altogether this is a stylish, heartfelt performance of a profound and moving work. Incidentally, in spite of Steffani's undeserved obscurity until recently, there have been a couple of other recordings of this piece - one directed by Gustav Leonhardt, and another by Christoph Hammer, sung one voice per part and sounding exceptionally beautiful in my opinion, in a lovely programme with several other Steffani sacred works on Austrian radio's adventurous ORF Edition Alte Musik label.
Moving from mature Steffani to young Handel, "Dixit Dominus" is a vigorous and inventive setting of an Old Testament text, rather politically incorrect in places where it urges the Lord to smite his enemies and scatter the resulting remains over several countries. Although not one of Handel's best-known choral works it has nevertheless been well served on disc, with performances directed by Emmanuelle Haïm, Gardiner, Minkowski, Preston, Fasolis, Willcocks and, most recently, a fine recording under Marcus Creed coupled with the lovely Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, on Harmonia Mundi - not forgetting an earlier all-Handel programme from Christophers and The Sixteen. Suffice to say that, on the present disc, "Dixit Dominus" receives an excellent performance, again with fine solo contributions and with the choral movements - "Iudicabit in nationibus" being a good example - taken in forthright and masterly fashion although, once again, some of the detail is lost where the recording allows the instrumental parts to be overwhelmed in certain passages.
In his introductory booklet note, Harry Christophers explains his views on the quality of Steffani's music and the relationship between the two works on the disc. In coupling the beautiful swansong of this highly original baroque composer with Handel's youthful masterpiece, the ever-enterprising Christophers and The Sixteen have indeed made an inspired choice and performed another service for their many followers and for lovers of baroque music in general. Of course existing devotees of Steffani will not hesitate, in spite of the above-mentioned reservations about the thick texture of the recording quality. In addition, baroque enthusiasts who buy this disc mainly for the Handel piece or simply on the basis of The Sixteen's well-deserved reputation, but who don't yet know the music of the great Saxon's brilliant Italian predecessor, will undoubtedly be pleased as well as enlightened by this unique coupling. And let's hope for more recordings of Steffani's music, especially the operas and the glorious chamber duets, from the many other talented early music groups of today.