George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
The Choice of Hercules, HWV 69 (1751) [49:35]
Dettingen Te Deum, HWV 283 (1743) [37:48]
Diana Moore (mezzo-soprano), Fflur Wyn, Rachel Kelly (soprano), Nathan Haller (tenor), Cody Quattlebaum (bass-baritone)
Christ Church Cathedral Choir
FestspielOrchester Göttingen/Laurence Cummings.
rec. live, May 19, 2018, Stadthalle Göttingen, Germany.
Sung texts and German translations included.
ACCENT ACC26415 [49:35 + 37:48]
Very few, I imagine, would regard either of these works as amongst Handel’s very greatest. But even in works which display merely the very highest competence rather than something even more special, Handel’s music has much to offer the listener, especially when played as well as it is here. Laurence Cummings has for some years been a leading interpreter of Handel and these two discs will surely delight all who love Handel.
The Choice of Hercules is as much, or more, a synthesis rather than an original act of creation. It unites newly composed music with some earlier music. In 1749 Handel was commissioned by John Rich, manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, to write the music for Alceste, a semi-opera written by Tobias Smollett (1721-1771). Smollett was best known (in his own time and since) as a novelist – and to a lesser degree as a poet. His theatrical writings were a minor and somewhat marginal part of his literary output. Only two plays survive, The Reprisal (1749) and The Regicide (1756). Still, he was hopeful about his Alceste. Amongst his letters is one dated February 14 1749, addressed to his fellow Scot, Alexander Carlyle. In it Smollett tells Carlyle: “I have wrote a sort of Tragedy on the story of Alceste, which will (without fail) be acted at Covent Garden next season and appear with such magnificence of scenery as was never exhibited in Britain before”. But Rich cancelled the production, for reasons not definitely known and, in retrospect, Smollett’s parenthetical “without fail” strikes a poignant note. When, in 1751, a performance of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast – which had been premiered in 1736, was planned for Covent Garden Handel decided to add a third part to the work. The chosen subject was ‘the choice of Hercules’ – a well-known allegory which originated with the Greek philosopher Prodikos (c.465-415 BCE), a friend of Plato and Socrates. The fable survives in the Memorabilia of Socrates by Xenophon (c.430-c.355 BCE). It narrates how the young Hercules encounters two women at a crossroads; these women represent alternative choices of how Hercules might conduct his life, being named Virtue and Pleasure (in some versions they are identified as Virtue and Vice, or Virtue and Sloth). The fable was retold by, amongst others, Dio Chrysostom (c.40-c.115 CE) in Greek, and in Latin by Cicero (106-43 BCE). There are several images of the scene (usually as Hercules at the CrossRoads) painted by artists of the Renaissance and the Baroque (e.g. by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Annibale Carraci, Paolo Veronese (The Choice Between Virtue and Vice), Sebastiano Ricci, Rubens, Nicholas Poussin, Paolo de Matteis and Pompeo Batoni; the relevant work by the last of these is reproduced on the cover of these CDs). Musical treatments of the subject included J.S. Bach’s cantata Hercules auf dem Schneiderwege (1733) and Maurice Greene’s The Judgement of Hercules (1740). Amongst Handel’s contemporaries, at least two poets produced interesting treatments of the theme – Robert Lowth (1710-87), in The Judgement of Hercules (1743) and William Duncombe (1690-1769) in The Choice of Hercules (1748).
For his libretto, Handel turned to his friend, the classical scholar Thomas Morell, who had already prepared several libretti for the composer, for Judas Maccabeus, Alexander Balus and Theodora. Much of Morell’s libretto for The Choice of Hercules is clearly based on Robert Lowth’s poem The Judgement of Hercules. In setting this libretto Handel reused some of music he had written for Smollett’s unperformed Alceste. Some pieces of this music were carried over more or less unchanged, while others were, to a degree, recomposed. The secco recitatives and three numbers – ‘There the brisk sparkling nectar drain’, ‘Where shall I go?’ and ‘Mount, mount the steep ascent’ – were set to newly composed music. For the closing chorus ‘Virtue will place thee in that blest abode’ Handel ‘borrowed’ music from the ‘Gloria’ of Antonio Lotti’s Missa Sapientiae, written in the 1720s. We know that Handel copied out extracts from this mass in 1749; he obviously admired the work (as J. S. Bach did), since he also drew on it in both Theodora and Jephtha (See J. Roberts, Handel’s Sources, Vol. 5, 1986).
Given the history of both the libretto and the music, one might almost describe Handel’s The Choice of Hercules as a collage. Indeed, some of the recycled music works less than perfectly. For example, the music to which Virtue sings the praises of Hercules:
This manly youth
[whose] childhood in its earliest rise,
Bespoke him gen’rous, brave and wise,
And manhood shall confirm his choice
was originally written, for Smollett’s Alceste, to accompany an address to Morpheus, son of the god of sleep and himself the god of dreams. With, in its opening, an almost lullaby-like rhythm and a gentle flute it sounds a good deal more apt for its original purpose than for its new one. Nor is the music which was originally written, as Jonathan Keates puts it, as “a jaunty bass aria” (Handel: The Man and his Music, 1985, p.298) wholly fitting for Hercules’ closing address to Virtue:
Lead, Goddess, lead the way!
Thy awful pow’r, supremely wise,
Shall guide me with its sacred ray …
Elsewhere things fit together more successfully, as in the music from Alceste re-used to set Pleasure’s ‘Turn thee, youth, to joy and love’, in which the rhythms of the gavotte seem appropriate for both the character of Pleasure and for sentiments of “joy and love”. In the closing chorus, adapted from Lotti’s mass and transposed from G major to its relative minor, the music seems to give to the words just an edge of uneasy uncertainty, as if Handel ultimately found the idea that Pleasure and Virtue were mutually exclusive absolutes too much of a moral simplification. In his booklet notes for these CDs Wolfgang Sandberger closes by suggesting that “Handel […] no longer ascribes fully to the traditional moral-pedagogical structure of The Choice of Hercules. Pleasure appears too dominant overall, and Hercules too uncertain in his choice. Perhaps Handel – as with Goethe later – was questioning the exclusive either-or-decision”. (The Goethe reference is to a passage in his farce Götter, Heiden und Wieland. The relevant passage in Sandberger’s German text says, as I would translate it, that Handel ‘no longer follows with full conviction the traditional moral-pedagogical structure of The Choice of Hercules’).
There are, then, areas of unease and weakness in the work; overall, there are a few too many places where Handel’s musical imagination isn’t fully engaged with the relationship between words and music – how could it be, when some of the music was composed before the associated words were written? A good performance has to carry us past such areas of (relative) weakness, and this one certainly does.
Cummings’s years (2012-2021) as Director of the Göttingen International Handel Festival have seen the release of a valuable series of live recordings on the Accent label, including Siroe (ACC 26401), Joshua (ACC 26403), Susanna (ACC 24606) and Saul (ACC 26413). This may well be one of the last in the series, though it is by no means the least interesting of the recordings. The FestspielOrchester Göttingen and the Choir of Christ Church, Oxford (choir master: Stephen Darlington) are disciplined and assured throughout. The opening Sinfonia of The Choice (beautifully phrased by Cummings) is played with unforced nobility and the Christ Church Choir is heard to particularly fine effect in ‘Arise! Mount the steep ascent’ and ‘Virtue will place thee in that blest abode’.
The four soloists all benefit – whether in aria or recitative (when accompanied) – from Laurence Cummings’s consummate expertise in Handelian accompaniment. As Hercules (a role originally sung by the castrato Gaetano Guadagni, and nowadays often sung by a countertenor), mezzo Diana Moore sings with authority and a degree of psychological and emotional insight, not least in her character’s long delayed first aria (‘Yet can I hear that dulcet lay’) and she goes quite some way towards rescuing ‘Lead, goddess, lead the way!’ from the problems outlined earlier. I was particularly impressed by her recitative singing in ‘The sounds breathe fire’. She interacts well with the two sopranos, Fflur Wynn and Rachel Kelly, in the trio ‘Where shall I go?’. As Pleasure, Fflur Wynn possesses – as I knew from hearing her live – a voice which has great purity of tone. Her “lays” are certainly “dulcet”. But her voice is perhaps sometimes too pure for the role. Consistently lovely as her singing is, a little more sensuality of sound wouldn’t have gone amiss, especially in arias such as ‘Come, blooming boy, with me repair’ and ‘While for thy arms that beauty glows’. Rachel Kelly (often cast as a mezzo) here sings the other soprano role, as Virtue, and does so very attractively, without – and this is no fault of hers – ever quite being able to make ‘Virtue’ a personality rather than an abstract ideal (the limitation lies with what Morell and Handel gave the singer to work with). Still, Kelly proves a convincing moral ‘voice’, notably in ‘Rise, youth! exalt thyself and me’ and ‘Go, assert thy heav’nly race’. As Pleasure’s Attendant, the Canadian Nathan Haller, a tenor I haven’t heard before, sings his solitary aria (‘Enjoy the sweet Elysian grove’) with pleasing assurance and conviction.
This is an attractive and largely persuasive performance of The Choice of Hercules with (to borrow the phraseology of its libretto) many of the pleasures of live recordings (the sound is good) and few of their vices. Although I look forward to further hearings of the disc, I am not sure that I shall play it more often than Robert King’s recording of 2001 (on Hyperion), with Robin Blaze, Susan Gritton and Alice Coote as his soloists.
The Dettingen Te Deum, being a single integral act of creation on Handel’s part, offers fewer problems than The Choice of Hercules, with its complex synthesis of diverse materials. It was written to celebrate the safe return to London of George II, after he had successfully led British troops, alongside contingents from Austria, Hannover and Hesse, against the French army at the Battle of Dettingen on 27 June 1743. This was, incidentally, the last occasion on which a reigning monarch led British forces on the battlefield. The work which Handel wrote for this occasion was his fifth (and last) setting of the ‘Te Deum’ hymn; prior to the Dettingen Te Deum the first of Handel’s settings, the Utrecht Te Deum of 1713, was the one most commonly sung. But in the decades immediately after the Dettingen Te Deum was premiered in the Chapel Royal on November 27 1743 it largely eclipsed the earlier setting (there is abundant evidence of this in Otto Erich Deutsch’s Handel: A Documentary Biography, 1955, with its records of performances of this new setting at other venues in London, as well as in such places as Dublin, Salisbury, Worcester, Hereford, Bath and elsewhere in the 15 years after its premiere). During the Nineteenth Century, the Utrecht Te Deum was largely forgotten. Not every Handelian has taken the view that it deserves its popularity. For example, Jonathan Keates (in the book cited above, p.251) describes The Dettingen Te Deum as among “the most overrated” of Handel’s works and finds in it “an almost cynical blatancy of effect”, adding that “the coarseness of grain in the style of this piece makes it strangely inauthentic”. That, I hasten to add, is not how I hear the work nor, predictably, does Laurence Cummings take such a view of it. Though Handel is not shy of making his points forcefully in The Dettingen Te Deum (it is after all celebratory music written for a public occasion) I can hear nothing “cynical” or “coarse-grained” in the music – certainly not in this fully committed performance. Indeed, in the final aria, ‘Vouchsafe, O Lord’ and the closing chorus, ‘O Lord, in thee have I trusted’ – in both of which American bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum is heard at his best – there is a sense of prayerfulness entirely free of anything to which one, surely, could attach epithets such as ‘cynical’ or ‘coarse-grained’. Admittedly, some of the earlier sections of the work (such as ‘We praise thee, O God’ and ‘All the earth doth worship thee’) do ring out with the sounds of battle and the joy of victory, but they do so splendidly, especially in Handel’s writing for the three trumpets the score requires (played here by David Staff, Russel Gilmour and Rupprecht Drees). Had it not offered its audience such passages Handel’s music would have been false to the spirit of the occasion for which it was originally written. However, as early as the third chorus (‘To thee all angels sing aloud’) Handel already seems to be leaving the battlefield behind and assuming a different kind of solemnity.
I have loved The Dettingen Te Deum ever since I first heard it, which – unless my memory plays me false, was in Oxford in the 1960s, in a performance which involved the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, predecessors of the choir heard, on superb form, here. It is a work in which Handel displays a subtle control of tone and which has more than a few ravishingly beautiful passages. This is the best recording of the work that I can remember hearing and it supersedes earlier fine recordings such as the 1982 recording (Deutsche Grammophon) directed by Simon Preston or that directed by Stephen Layton in 2007 (Hyperion). On each of the three occasions on which I have so far listened to this performance directed by Laurence Cummings I have felt the urge to join in the enthusiastic applause, which closes the disc, of its original audience in Göttingen.