The writing of music to commemorate specific events is an old and honourable tradition. Admittedly many of these works do not survive into the later repertoire but they do have an historic as well as a musical interest. Who would not want to hear such intriguing works as Elvey’s “This is the day” for the thanksgiving for the suppression of the Indian mutiny, or John Clarke’s penitential anthem for the recovery of the King in 1801? Neither of these curiosities are included here; instead we have four works of real musical rather than merely historical interest. To make it of special interest all of them were written specifically to be performed inside St Paul’s Cathedral where the recording took place.
The best known works are Handel’s two large-scale efforts for a service to commemorate the signing of the Treaties of Utrecht in 1713 which ended the War of the Spanish Succession. They were his first church music in English, written before the Chandos Anthems and, especially in the case of the Te Deum, apparently influenced by Purcell’s settings which were still performed regularly in England. Both the Te Deum and Jubilate are divided into sections of contrasting character and scoring, and both were performed annually in St Paul’s until replaced by the Dettingen Te Deum in 1743.
St Paul’s is unquestionably an architectural masterpiece, but its distinctive shape and scale mean that its equally distinctive acoustic can make it hard to distinguish detail, especially in recordings, where the microphones need to be set with great cunning to avoid the impact of what can sound like multiple echoes. Here the engineers have done very well with the orchestra, whose inner detail is clear without sounding excessively close, but significantly less well with the singers, especially the choir. Paradoxically this may be due to the latter’s greater experience of singing in the building and conquering its acoustic. They appear to sing lightly and without great definition of phrases or dynamics although I am sure that the effect heard live was much more musically convincing. This has the effect of reducing the drama inherent in the music, and leaving it essentially to the orchestra. The soloists are all good if at times sounding underpowered compared with the orchestra - again I would suspect that this is an effect of the acoustic and the recording.
John Blow’s anthem “I was glad” was written for the Peace of Ryswick and the opening of the Cathedral itself. It is a fine piece in the Purcellian manner and comes off better than the Handel. So similarly does the Boyce anthem, written for the annual Festival of the Sons of the Clergy and repeated at those Festivals for many years after. It is the longest work here, but its variety of scoring, including festive choruses at the beginning and end, a trio for three trebles with oboes, and various solos, and a general character indebted to the mature Handel, make it instantly clear why it was so popular.
This is a valuable disc, and its concentration on works written for one place and recorded there is in principle an excellent approach. The performers are all experienced in this kind of music and, subject to the reservations I have expressed above, do all that is needed for it. I am sorry not to be able to be rather more enthusiastic, but St Paul’s does have a notoriously difficult acoustic, and I suspect that the apparent lack of the sheer excitement and drama which is an essential part of the music may be largely a result of that acoustic. Nonetheless, and especially at the lower price at which it has been reissued, it is certainly worth hearing for the music itself, especially the Blow and Boyce.