George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Zadok the Priest HWV 258 [5:19]
Let they hand be strengthened HWV 259 [7:46]
The king shall rejoice HWV 260 [10:48]
My heart is indicting HWV 261 [11:45]
Esther – Choruses from the 1732 version
Shall we the God of Israel fear [1:33]
Ye sons of Israel mourn [2:11]
Tyrants may a while presume [2:23]
Save us, O Lord [1:27]
God is our hope [4:51]
NDR Chor/Philipp Ahmann (chorus master)
FestspielOrchester Göttingen/Laurence Cummings
rec. live at the Göttingen International Handel Festival, 17 May 2012 (Esther) and 7 June 2014 (Coronation Anthems)
ACCENT ACC26405 [55:17]
With Brexit recently in mind, it didn’t escape me that this CD impresses a shared ownership of GFH. Not only a German choir and orchestra with a British conductor, but the packaging and booklet refer both to the composer’s German and anglicised names, including the linguistic mix of “Händel: Coronation Anthems” for the main title.
The anthems of course are firmly part of English history and their performance deeply rooted in the English choral tradition. Handel wrote them for the coronation of George II, at whose wish he took British citizenship to meet the formal requirements for the task. Their festive character brought the works exceptional popularity after the coronation, and Zadok the Priest has been heard at every coronation since.
Esther is purportedly Handel’s first oratorio, and indeed the first English oratorio, written in about 1718 when the composer was in the employ of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon. Effectively in private hands, Esther remained generally unknown until 1732 when it received its first public airing in what might today be called a bootleg performance, prompting Handel to reclaim and revise it, and mount his own ‘authorised’ production. From then until 1753, he revived it no fewer than nine times, but it is a selection of choruses from the 1732 version that are heard on this CD.
The recordings are from concerts at the Göttingen International Handel Festival in 2012 and 2014. The CD is cunningly arranged, opening with Zadok the Priest and closing with God is our hope, its variant from Esther. Stunning bookends, you might say, except of course Zadok, along with certain other rousing choruses by Verdi, Orff, Beethoven, Mozart et al, has been done to death by the advertising industry. Still, a stirring performance can always raise the spirits, and this one is no exception. The NDR Chor is a mixed chamber-sized group which for me produces a grander and, dare I say, sexier vocal brew than the ‘white’ sound of English cathedral choirs. They sing in English with excellent diction and expressive range. From the adrenaline rush of Zadok, the multi-part anthems follow, somewhat out of order given that The king shall rejoice opened proceedings in 1727. Even authenticity, though, has to make way for emotional flow! As it happens, I couldn’t fault the sequencing of items, with the Sinfonia from Esther a soothing interlude between the choral exultations.
The Göttingen Festival Orchestra plays with spirited precision and period style under Laurence Cummings, although it comes across as somewhat stronger in the winds than the strings, both in amplitude and ensemble. Also as a consequence of the different recording dates and nature of the works, there are numerous changes in composition of the orchestra and choir, and indeed different recording teams were employed. I noticed immediate, but subtle, changes in balance and perspective once the Esther selections began; the sound is more distant, the choir is less prominent, and at times too dominated by the orchestra. Comparing the choral entries on the two Zadok tracks underlines these differences. Clearly, I preferred the first-half balance for the anthems, but not without reservation, as the choir soloists in My heart is indicting could have been given greater projection. Overall, though, the sound is amply full and detailed. Applause has been removed and extraneous noise is minimal.
As with a recent review of this Accent series from the Göttingen Festival, I’m giving a welcoming nod to this CD, noting its particular composition is probably not replicated often, if at all, and if you prefer the sound of a mixed choir in these works, as I do, this may be your best option. Aside from some minor foibles of live recording, this is Handel, or Händel, at his most resplendent and life-affirming.