Notes and Editorial Reviews
When Queen Caroline died, Handel lost one of his strongest patrons. Wife of George II, she had been an intelligent supporter of Handel’s music since becoming Princess of Wales when George I (her father-in-law) came to the English throne. In fact, Handel had composed music for her whilst he was Kapellmeister in Hannover where her father-in-law was Elector; in London Handel was appointed music master to her daughters.
The funeral anthem, ‘The Ways of Zion do Mourn’, was composed for her funeral service in December 1737 and was performed, according to an account in the Daily Advertisers, by nearly eight vocal performers and one hundred instrumentalists. Here it is performed by the rather more modest forces of the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra under John Eliot Gardiner.
An eloquent yet sober work, the funeral anthem is around the length of an act of an oratorio. It is one of Handel’s finest works, yet has somehow not really succeeded in finding a regular place in the repertoire. In many ways it is sui generis; the only one of Handel’s religious occasional pieces to have real depth and real coherence of structure - it has few natural companion pieces. Handel tried to re-use it (with revised words) as the first act of ‘Israel in Egypt’, but this does not seem to have caught on even in Handel’s day. Though, Eliot Gardiner did include the piece (albeit with original words) in his first recording of ‘Israel in Egypt’ he dropped this idea in his later recording from the 1990’s. It is this original recording from 1979/1980 which has been re-issued here.
The work is substantially a choral work and the Monteverdi Choir give it a superb, well modulated performance. They are well supported by Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Orchestra whose well sprung rhythms provide a fine counterpoint to the sober eloquence of the choir. The recording wears its age well. Perhaps nowadays conductors might be tended to include a little more passionate intensity, but Gardiner’s sober approach to this noble piece works very well.
You would hardly buy the funeral anthem for its soloists, their contribution is relatively small. But it was a pleasure to hear again such singers as Norma Burrowes and Charles Brett.
Handel’s ‘Te Deum’ and ‘Jubilate’, written to celebrate the Treaty of Utrecht, were written in 1713 just over a year after his arrival in London. It is an effective and spirited score, full of the brilliant touches which Handel could bring to this sort of occasional music.
The performance by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus Wien was recorded in 1984 and, like the Funeral Anthem, it is wearing well for its age. As ever, Concentus Musicus provide a wonderfully crisp, strong reading with some brilliant solos from the wind and brass players. The Arnold Schoenberg choir give a good strong choral sound and their English is more than creditable. It is welcome to hear again in this music such soloists as Felicity Palmer, Philip Langridge, Kurt Equiluz and Thomas Moser; all make admirable contributions. The only singer that I had reservations about was Marjana Lipovsek whose tone I found rather too plummy for this music. On his Oiseau Lyre recording with the Academy of Ancient Music, which dates from 1980, Simon Preston uses two soprano, a counter tenor and two tenors. So that on the Preston disc we have Emma Kirkby and Judith Nelson duetting as two equals, rather than Harnoncourt’s Felicity Palmer and Marjana Lipovsek, duetting as soprano and alto.
Comparison with the Preston recording is illuminating. Both come in at around the same total time (Preston is 13 seconds faster over all) but the overall feel of Preston’s version is livelier and crisper. It is not a light performance; Preston does duty to the work’s massive origins, but he manages to bring light into the music, air between the notes. Whereas Harnoncourt seems to be aiming for a more massive effect; his performers still turn in stylish, crisp performances but I did not like the heavier feel of this recording. To a certain extent this is a matter of taste and the performance displays some fine musicianship.
This pairing of two of Handel’s occasional pieces provides a very welcome opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with two recordings which, once cutting edge, have now acquired the patina of time.
-- Robert Hugill, MusicWeb International