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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Music for Queen Caroline
The King shall rejoice – Coronation Anthem, HWV 260 [11:35]
Te Deum “Caroline” in D, HMV 280 [15:25]
The Ways of Zion do Mourn – Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, HWV 264 [46:07]
Tim Mead (counter-tenor); Sean Clayton (tenor); Lisandro Abadie (bass-baritone)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
rec. no information provided

This is an excellent idea for a CD, beautifully curated and presented by Les Arts Florissants' own label which, with only its second release to come my way, is already making a very strong impression on me. The organising principle, simple in its effectiveness, is to gather together some music that Handel associated with Queen Caroline of Ansbach, wife of George II. She had the reputation of being one of the most cultured, cultivated women of her age, and it seems that she was very supportive of Handel during his Hanover days. She continued her patronage when she became first Princess of Wales and then Queen of England, and it seems that Handel was very appreciative of this fact. His Te Deum, while probably written to commemorate the arrival in England of George I and his son, was also played to commemorate Caroline's arrival a few days later, and has borne her name ever since. At the other end of her reign, Handel wrote The Ways of Zion do Mourn for Caroline's funeral in 1737.

The Coronation Anthem The King Shall Rejoice, on the other hand, has no special connection to the queen, but begins the disc as a good indication of the direction of travel. The music is light on its feet and full of persuasive continental élan, more so than many venerable versions that I've heard from great British choirs. Christie invests the whole anthem with a sense of brightness and forward momentum that reaps dividends, though the opening of Glory and great worship is taken so quickly that it provides no contrast to the other sections around it. Here, as elsewhere, however, the instrumental colour is marvellous, simultaneously rich and transparent, and the singing of the chorus is joyful and exciting.

The opening of the Te Deum radiates majesty in its breadth and the colour of the brass and timpani, but the transparency (and smaller size) of the forces makes it seem intimate and close at the same time, as though it were also an act of personal devotion. There is a satisfying sense of growth in the cries of Holy, Holy, Holy, and Tim Mead's bright counter-tenor acts almost as narrator in the opening scene. His ethereal, translucent sound is also a good companion through his other movements, most notably Vouchsafe, O Lord. Sean Clayton is flexible and bright-sounding, though occasionally a little strangled at the top. Lisandro Abadie is also fairly light of voice in the bass solo, but flexible and reliable into the bargain. It's the chorus that are the really striking vocalists, though, full of vigour, excitement and responsiveness to the text, culminating in a marvellously ebullient finale.

The colour changes utterly, however, for the funeral music, which begins with a doleful drum-beat over which the strings throb with passionate intensity, encapsulating all the grief of the occasion. The chorus then enter with sombre delicacy and spin a moving web of sound that is slow and deliberate, so that the arrival of the biting How art the mighty fallen sounds almost explosive. The journey into the major for When the ear heard her comes as welcome balm built on a gentle bed of strings, and the solo contributions in She deliver'd the poor lighten the texture beautifully. There is then a wonderful turn to the positive as the anthem enters its second half, with its meditation on the virtues and benefits of the righteous. I particularly liked the warmth of the sound they generate in But their name liveth evermore.

As with their earlier Belshazzar, the packaging is sumptuously presented in a pair of cardboard cases, with a lavishly illustrated booklet that contains texts as well as biographies. As a bonus, there's a specially commissioned short story from Douglas Kennedy which is fine, but won't win any prizes. Again, it's wonderful to see someone like Christie who is so committed to the joy of the physical product and not just to the ephemeral notes. This deserves to do well.

Simon Thompson