Monday 29 February 2016

Youthful exuberance - Handel's Dixit Dominus at Saffron Hall

George Frideric Handel
George Frideric Handel
during his Italian sojurn
Handel Dixit Dominus, Chandos & Coronation anthems; The Sixteen choir and orchestra, Harry Christophers; Saffron Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 27 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Music by Handel from his entire career, showcasing the youthful exuberance of Dixit Dominus

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have been performing an all Handel programme at various venues and we caught up with them on the final date of the tour at Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, on Saturday 27 February 2016. The programme started with the sinfonia from Act Three of Handel's Solomon, The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, followed by Chandos Anthem No. 11 'Let God Arise', the Coronation Anthem 'Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened', with the overture to Handel's Jephtha and Dixit Dominus in the second half. The soloists, all drawn from the ranks of the choir, were Grace Davidson, Charlotte Mobbs, Katy Hill, Jeremy Budd, Simon Berridge and Eamonn Dougan.

The selection of Handel's works covered virtually his entire career, ranging from the early Dixit Dominus written in 1707 during Handel's Italian stay, through the early maturity of the Chandos Anthem written in 1717-18, to the Coronation Anthem from 1727 and the overture to his last oratorio, Jephtha from 1752. And interestingly, David Vickers' programme note pointed out that both the Chandos Anthems and the Coronation Anthems were mined for Handel's early oratorios Esther and Deborah in the 1730's.

Saffron Hall with its intimate but warm acoustic is a nice size for music of this period. The Sixteen fielded 19 singers (though 20 were named in the programme) and an orchestra of over 20 (led by Sarah Sexton, including harp, theorbo and organ) which varied in size according to Handel's scorings as works like the Chandos Anthem were written for the relatively small forces available to Handel when writing for the Duke of Chandos' household.
The concert opened with The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba in a lively and engaging performance, with the instrumentalists revelling in Harry Christophers' fast-ish speeds and producing playing of a nice immediacy, with lovely oboe playing from Leo Duarte and Sarah Humphrys. Throughout the evening, the sense of crisp bounce and vitality in the playing was noticeable, with a lovely attention to the rhythmic underpinning of the music.

Handel's Chandos Anthems were written at a period when he wrote music for the Duke of Chandos and was Chandos's composer at his country house, Cannons, during the period 1717-1718. The anthems were written for performance at the church of St. Lawrence, Whitchurch (which still survives complete with the organ Handel played). The 11th anthem (the numbering reflects later publication rather than the order of composition) sets words from Psalms 68 and 76. There are two full solo movements, and here the solos were taken by soprano Grace Davidson and the tenor Jeremy Budd.

The opening sonata started in finely stately, yet rhythmic fashion before the busy, toe-tapping faster section. The opening chorus, 'Let God arise' was notable for the combination of strong articulation from the singers and fine even passagework. Jeremy Budd provided a neat tenor solo with a lovely lyrical line, whilst Grace Davidson joyfully duetted with Leo Duarte's oboe. Both soloists came forward in front of the singers, but seemed to hit a slightly odd acoustical effect in the hall in that solos sung from the choir platform seemed to project better than those sung from in front of the orchestra. This meant that in Budd and Davidson's solos they were primus inter pares rather then being spotlit. 'O sing unto God' went with a nice, relaxed lilt whilst the following movement had a lovely sense of suspended time as phrases gently unfolded. This provided a fine contrast with the vigour and articulation in 'At thy rebuke'. All concluding with a grand final chorus. Throughout the performance managed to combine precision and clarity with an engaging exuberance.

Handel's Coronation Anthem 'Let God Arise' was from the group Handel wrote for George II's coronation, the commission going to Handel rather than the Master of the King's Music, Maurice Greene, thanks to the personal wish of George II. Written for some of the largest choral forces available to him, Handel's music reached a wide audience because of the popularity of the rehearsals. 'Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened' sets verses from Psalm 89 and was intended to be sung at the Recognition.

In three parts, the opening section was grand but with great rhythmic appeal with the singers making a lean bright sound with a sense of lively engagement and great rhythmic spring, even in the more lyrical sections. The second, quietly intent and sustained section led to a brightly brilliant conclusion.

The overture to Handel's oratorio Jephtha (premiered in 1752) has a sombreness and sobriety to it, even in the faster sections, which reflects the serious nature of the oratorio's message. Harry Christophers brought out the sombre grandeur of the work, with the players giving a performance of great immediacy ending with a movement in gracious triple time.

Handel's Dixit Dominus was completed in April 1707 (the autograph exists along with Handel's inscription of the date) which means that we know he was in Rome at the time. We do not know for whom it was written, though such a large scale grand piece was undoubtedly designed for one of his major patrons. There has been some move to associate it with the music Handel wrote for the Carmelites in summer 1707, but really we do not know. Clearly Handel, in Italy since autumn 1706, had learned a great deal during his stay because the music bursts forth with an energy and exuberance which manages to combine a sense of Italian brilliance with a polyphonic inventiveness which is completely Germanic. It is written for five-part choir, matched by a five-part string orchestra (with divide violas), and as a significant Roman commission would almost certainly have been sung by an ensemble with castratos on the upper lines.

There is no overture, the work launches directly into the brilliance of the opening Dixit Dominus with a joyful explosion, sung with crisp articulation, and complemented by the lyrical solos (Grace Davidson, Ian Aitkenhead, Jeremy Budd) which emerge from the choir, thus making an interesting variation of texture akin to a vocal concerto grosso. Katy Hill gave a lyrical yet vibrant account of Virgam virtutis, her poised vocals contrasting nicely with the vigorous solo cello (Joseph Crouch). Grace Davidson's poised performance of Tecum principium had a lovely sense of line with a beautifully floated upper register.

In an evening which seemed full of contrasts of textures in the music, Iuravit Dominus saw the choir moving from slow powerful chords to a fast passage which launched like a rocket. Tu es sacerdos brought the sound in waves, whilst Dominus a dextris tuis had the soloists (Charlotte Mobbs, Grace Davidson, Jeremy Budd, Eamonn Dougan) providing some tingling suspensions. The sparkling Iudicabit in nationibus was full of a variety of fascinating textures, performed with engaging excitement. De torrente was quiet and intense, with the two sopranos (Charlotte Mobbs, Grace Davidson) providing two beautifully clear poised yet contrasting lines which intertwined magically. The final movement Gloria Patri et Filio was something of a tour de force, with Handel providing contrasting music for each line and then combining all in one glorious mess, before the wonderfully dancing final fugue.

A fine evening of Handel performed with engaging immediacy to an enthusiastic audience with Saffron Hall at virtually full capacity.

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