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Fanfare Magazine: 43:3 (01-02/2020) 
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Reviewer: Bertil van Boer

In 1713 one of those ghastly and interminable wars of the Baroque period came to an end with the Treaty of Utrecht. Called the War of the Spanish Succession, it had stretched out since 1701 and, without putting too fine a point on things, if pitted the usual realms against each other for domination of Spain, the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons. Of course, the Dutch and English (and others) had to get involved, but the long and short of things was that the entire decade and a few years left everyone wishing for an end to the war, and the final treaty was one that no one apparently felt would last. In any case, the signing of the treaty coincided with the birthday of Queen Anne, who was popular enough, though without heir. Her new musical sensation, George Frederic Handel, was young, brash, and an international success as an opera composer. He found his music was the taste of the day, helped along by the appearance of castrato singers, no doubt. He had recently told his erstwhile employer, the Elector of Hannover, basically to shove it, and had as a result been dismissed; the fact that the Elector was to become Anne’s successor as George I was another story that entailed some rather touchy moments for the composer. In any case, he was commissioned to compose the celebratory work for the treaty, a Te Deum and Jubilate (in English), and because it just so happened to come about the time of the Queen’s birthday, Handel ingratiated himself by also writing an ode for the occasion, which was taken with such delight that the Queen bestowed an annual stipend on the composer.

The opening of the Te Deum is typical Handel, with scurrying strings at the opening supporting broad homophonic sweeps before merging into a brief section of counterpoint. “To Thee all angels cry” is hardly a joyful shout, but rather a solemn set of dotted rhythms and suspensions in the solo voices, but the Cherubim and Seraphim moves into a more active realm with a relentless walking bass and a choral colophon of majesty and power. The first major movement, “The glorious company,” offers a clear homage to Purcell in the wandering solo voices and suspensions in the oboes. “We believe that Thou shalt come” evokes Vivaldi in the steady march of the ostinato and the ethereal flute solo above the voices as a distant cantus firmus. This sets up the brilliant trumpet playing of the “Day by day we magnify Thy name.” Here is Handel at his most orchestrationally effective, with the echo of the voices and brass. This was later to emerge in one of the Coronation Anthems a decade or so later. The final chorus is a magnificent musical edifice, with powerful harmonic strokes and an energetic orchestral accompaniment that runs right along, even though the Amen portion comes far too soon.

In Anglican practice, such works as the Te Deum are usually followed by a Jubilate colophon. Here Handel has some nice trumpet solo portions that weave around the countertenor solo. The “joyful” affect is clear, and when the chorus enters it does so with the appropriate power and decisiveness. The final chorus starts out with a fugal statement, but Handel sidesteps the traditional form with homophonic choral cadences and then a meandering contrapuntal tapestry that is challenging and gnarly for the voices. The Ode to Queen Anne, on the other hand, is a small paean, with few of the numbers extending beyond a minute or so. The text itself may be of historical value but is otherwise static and not very well conceived. Of course, the Queen loved it, and it served its purpose. What is interesting is the cautious and flowing duet between the countertenor and trumpet that opens the work. The lines weave in and out in the introduction before Handel’s usual rousing and complexly ornamented final portion. Here countertenor Reginald Mobley handles the tortuous roulades with considerable ease, blending nicely with the clarino trumpet line. The choral colophon is equally as difficult, and the free counterpoint is one of the composer’s trademarks. It too reappears in the Coronation Anthems, so Handel must have thought highly of it. In “Let all the winged race” the solo oboes flutter about quaintly with some fine word painting. Here the choral text of the first movement is repeated (as it is for the remainder of the movements), but with new music appropriate to the preceding aria. “Flocks and herds” follow in a pastoral duet, and the unison opening of the duet “Let rolling streams” is reminiscent of Vivaldi in the sequences and wandering continuo line. And so it goes until a rather vibrant ending chorus that seems drawn right out of the opera. All in all, this is a cut above the usual odes to rulers in that it is brilliantly compiled, Handel at his best. As a last comment, the opera Il pastor fido written about the same time established him as the premier composer in town. In order to fill out the disc, an instrumental suite from the opera has been appended, though at the outset rather than somewhere in the middle of the disc where it would be less conspicuous.

Of course, none of these works lacks for good representation in the discography. Even Decca Eloquence, that label that revisits recordings of the 1950s and 1960s, has a rendition, but the Ode is usually paired with other early conventional sacred works, such as the Dixit Dominus. At least two excellent recordings by the Academy of Ancient Music can be found of the Ode, and the Utrecht music is likewise well represented, though often paired with Bach’s Magnificat, oddly enough. The suite, one of several excerpted or adapted from the opera (HWV 8a-c), is interesting enough, though the recordings mostly use the “Terpsichore” version that concludes with a lengthy Chaconne. The Carus recording uses the latest edition by that publisher, and the disc itself is quite lively and well produced. The Gächinger Cantorei (to use the more modern spelling) is spot on in terms of phrasing and interpretation in the instrumental ensemble, and the chorus is full-bodied and just right for the sometimes massive sound that Handel requires. Their diction is, however, never impaired by this, for each note is done in all parts with equal tonal quality. The only small quibble is that the soloists are sometimes a bit hesitant in terms of pitch and phrasing, though as noted countertenor Mobley has some nicely accurate lines in his solos. All in all, this is a nice disc, and it deserves to rank with the many other excellent renditions of these pieces.


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