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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Music for the Chapel Royal
Let God arise (HWV 256b) [12:32]
I will magnify thee (HWV 250b) [18:11]
As Pants the hart (HWV 251d) [11:54]
O Sing unto the Lord (HWV 249a) [11:19]
As Pants the hart (HWV 251a) (extr) [06:59]
Choir of the Chapel Royal
Musicians Extra-ordinary/Andrew Gant
rec. July 2005, Chapel Royal, St James's Palace, London, UK. DDD
NAXOS 8.557935 [60:55]


In order to understand the context in which the music recorded here was written, it is relevant to quote Andrew Gant's explanation of the term 'Chapel Royal'. It is "strictly a collective for the body of clergy, musicians and vestry officers attached to the Royal Household. Its function today is the same as it was in Handel's (...): to sing the regular services in the Chapel of whichever Palace the monarch wishes, and to accompany the monarch to major state services and other events elsewhere as commanded." It was only in 1714, shortly after Handel started composing music for the Chapel Royal, that it became based and sang services in the building known as 'Chapel Royal'. It is this building which is still the home of the present Chapel Royal which can be heard on this disc.

Some anthems here belong to the earliest compositions on English texts by Handel after his arrival in England. Some were reworked later when Handel started to compose for James Brydges, known as the Duke of Chandos, at his house Cannons in Middlesex. The letters added to the catalogue numbers refer to the several versions of these anthems. 'As pants the hart' and 'O sing unto the Lord' were originally composed for the Chapel Royal and then reworked for Cannons. The former is heard here in the latest version, written for the Chapel Royal when Handel returned to composing for its services. The other two anthems were originally composed for Cannons and reworked later for the Chapel Royal. So what he have here are four anthems as they were performed in the Chapel Royal - although there is some doubt whether HWV 251d was ever really performed. In addition two movements from the very first version of 'As pants the hart' are recorded.

'Let God arise' is in four sections and written - or rather adapted - for a national service of Thanksgiving. This had become a tradition, in particular under William III, when services of Thanksgiving were often held to mark the success of military campaigns. By the time of George I's reign they were held on the occasion of the arrival of members of the royal family from trips to their native Hanover. This anthem starts with a chorus, in which the text "Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered" is vividly depicted by descending figures through all the voices. It is performed well, but it would have been better if the articulation of the choir had been a little sharper and the trebles had sung with a little more power. Here it is all a shade harmless. The next section is a duet, but the alto and bass don't sing together: first the bass sings the first half of the 'duet', then the alto takes over for the second half. Andrew Ashwin is rather weak, in particular at the top of his range, whereas James Bowman gives a very fine account. Next follows a real duet of alto and bass, and here the balance between Bowman and Maciek O'Shea is less than ideal. The bass has a little tremolo in his voice, which makes his singing not very pleasant. The anthem is closed by a chorus on the words "Blessed be God. Alleluja."

'I will magnify thee' consists of six sections, the first and last of which are adapted from the Cannons version of the same anthem, whereas the other four movements are reworkings of movements from three other anthems written for Cannons. It begins with a magnificent solo for alto with an obbligato part for the oboe, brilliantly performed here by James Bowman and Katharina Spreckelsen. It is followed by a duet of alto and bass, in which the voices of Maciek O'Shea and Michael McGuire fail to blend very well. Next is a chorus with vocal quartet: the singing is good but the balance between the two groups much less so. There are two further duets for alto and bass, and here again the voices of Bowman and O'Shea are ill-matched. Rather well-done is the alto solo "Righteousness and equity are the habitation of thy seat" by Michael McGuire.

'As pants the hart' is based on a text from John Church's 'Divine Harmony' of 1712, which contains the lyrics of the anthems that were part of the Chapel's repertoire at the time. The first section is set for a vocal sextet and chorus. Here the top part is sung by two trebles, perhaps to make sure that it can be heard. This is a wise decision as the trebles do not have very strong and penetrating voices - certainly not in comparison with the trebles in some other British all-male choirs. A very nice section in this anthem is the duet for the two altos with obbligato cello. James Bowman and Michael McGuire have very different voices, but they blend well, and the cello part is beautifully played by Joseph Crouch.

In 'O sing unto the Lord' Bowman is in fine form in the opening section, whereas McGuire gives a nice performance of the solo "Sing unto the Lord, and praise his name". The anthem contains an 'accompagnetto' for bass, which is followed by a bass aria. They are given to two different singers - a most strange decision. Andrew Ashwin sings the 'accompagnetto', and I would have liked him to have sung the aria as well, because he is by far the best of the two basses.

The disc ends with two sections from the first version of 'As pants the hart'. This is delightful music, which I can't remember having heard before. First comes the second section, "Tears are my daily food: while thus they say, where is now thy God?" It is a solo for alto with basso continuo. James Bowman gives a deeply moving account of this most expressive aria. It is followed by an equally expressive duet for soprano and alto: "Why so full of grief, O my soul, why so disquieted within me?" James Bowman very sensitively adapts his singing to the much softer voice of treble Jacob Ferguson-Lobo, who sings well, but is a little short on expression.

I have mixed feelings about this disc. It brings music which is seldom performed, and that makes it recommendable and Handel's music is splendid. The choir sings better than on previous discs and that is all to the good. Bowman is great, as always. But the blending and balance between the voices - in particular the adult singers - is problematic. And the choruses sometimes lack clarity, which isn't only due to the acoustical circumstances. Despite the shortcomings there is enough to enjoy and the music is too good to be missed.

Johan van Veen
see also Reviews by Jonathan Woolf and Max Kenworthy



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