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American Record Guide (09-10/2016)

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Reviewer: John W. Barker


Handel was one of the greatest of all choral composers, and that category of his music is the crown of his creativity, even if not always fully acknowledged as such. Here we have a most interesting and curiously appropriate package of it. A chief glory of the choral category is the set of four anthems that Handel composed for the coronation of George II in 1727. (Odd that that date is nowhere mentioned in any part of this new release.) Quite a few recordings of this set have been made over the years. For me, the long-standing classic has been the first one, made in 1963 under David Willcocks and kept alive over the years through various reissues by Decca. Willcocks made a second recording in 1996 that proved to be totally inferior, and that has needlessly been kept alive (reissue J/A 2013). The most recent recording, under Lars Ulrik Mortensen for Obsidian (711: S/O 2014) is disappointing. There have been more important recordings going back some years: under Simon Preston (DG Archiv 410 030), Harry Christophers (Coro 16066: J/A 2009), and—my favorite among these—Robert

King (Hyperion 67286: M/A 2002). This new recording was made in concert at the Gottingen Festival in May 2012. The conductor is a Handelian of impeccable credentials. With a choir of 42 singers and 25 players led from the harpsichord by himself ) Cummings is able to work up performances of each anthem with a consistent musical vitality. His secret is careful attention to the rhythms and nuances of the texts, aided by choral singers seemingly little burdened by any accents in their English. It might seem at first that inclusion in the menu is simply a matter of adding filler. In fact, the combination with the anthems is quite proper. The five excerpts—the Sinfonia and five choruses— are drawn not from the original version of Esther, composed in 1718 for the Earl of Carnavon, later Duke of Chandos.

Rather they are taken from a London revival in 1732, with additional music. Most of those insertions were “parodies”, that is to say pieces from previous works of his own, which he fitted out with new texts. Lo and behold, what became the oratorio’s new final chorus was nothing less than the music for Zadok the Priest, the first of the Coronation Anthems, with some adjustment of the text. So it is that, by this device, the record begins and ends with the same music, the disguise notwithstanding. (The booklet notes make no mention of this specific transformation.) With only some slight changes in choral and orchestral personnel, Cummings leads idiomatic and vital performances of these Esther excerpts, in a concert performance in June 2014.

A most appealing release, then—one Handel collectors will want to investigate. And this performance of the anthems seems to me quite a worthy addition to the best ones made so far.


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