George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759): Carmelite Vespers 1707. Second Vespers of the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (as it might have been heard in Rome in July 1707 and containing seven motets by Handel embedded in appropriate Gregorian chant). Performed by Jill Feldman, Emma Kirkby, Emily Van Evera, soprano; Margaret Cable, Mary Nichols, alto; Joseph Cornwell, tenor; David Thomas, bass; The Taverner Choir; The Taverner Players; directed by Andrew Parrott. Recorded in June 1987 at St. Augustine's, Kilburn/London, England. First published 1989 by EMI; re-released in 1999 as Virgin Veritas 7243 5 61579 2 7. Total time: 2 hrs and a few seconds.
This is one of those speculative "reconstructions" of a historical occasion, this particular one being more speculative than most, as nobody really knows what part Handel played in the Roman Carmelite Vesper for 1707, nor whether his music was actually played there or not, nor if so, by whom, nor whether other composers were involved. Andrew Parrott and his team have decided for practical reasons to include all seven of Handel's extant Latin motets and to embed them in Gregorian chant appropriate for the occasion. I assume that it was also practical rather than theoretical considerations which led Parrott to use female singers rather than boy sopranos or countertenors for the soprano and alto parts - this is thoroughly unhistorical, but understandable as these parts would originally have been performed by "castrati" (who have, thank God, in the meantime died out).
The juxtapositioning of Handel's opulent music - even as a 22-year-old, his interest was mainly in opera - and the dull sobriety of counter-reformation chant can, I suppose, be seen as highlighting the modernity and brilliance of Handel's music, although personally I think I could have appreciated this without the labour of listening to Latin Marian antiphones. Parrott seems to want to emphasize the brilliance of Handel's music with fast tempi, but these tend to put the music under a certain pressure that I felt it could have done quite well without - Handel's music is so wonderful that a more deliberate dwelling on it would have been more than acceptable.
Of the soloists, it is the divine Emma Kirkby who, once again, shines like a star in the artistic universe: both her "Laudate, pueri" and "Haec est regina virginum" are absolute highlights of the set, my only query being as to the rather anglicized pronunciation of Italian ecclesiastical Latin. Others have criticized Jill Feldman ("Saeviat tellus") and felt her voice to be strained, but personally I felt her to be quite delectable, my only stricture being that the smallness of her voice would normally have required a completely different concept from the recording engineer (more on this in a moment). The other soloists fulfilled my expectations, and Emily Van Evera ("Salve Regina") exceeded them. The exception to this was bass David Thomas, who I'm afraid inspired me to use the word "disastrous" in the title of this review - I don't think I have ever heard him sound so hoarse and so unsensitive as he does here. Choir and orchestra are both very good, although I felt that the "Dixit Dominus" for all its drive did not come over as well as on the old Warner-Erato recording by John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir.
Having used the word "disastrous" I need to add two other points that made me feel that this CD set was very ambiguous. One is the engineering. The sound is realistic, for a big church, but distant, there being apparently no supporting microphones to pick out soloists. It may be a problem with my hardware, but I found listening in front of loudspeakers to be a trial, very unsatisfying, and I had almost given up when I changed to headphones and suddenly the whole acoustic seemed to come into focus (although even then there were softer passages when I felt that I would have loved to hear the soloists more loudly and clearly). I'm sure this sound was a deliberate decision by Andrew Parrott, but I really do feel that the kind of sound one can hear on many a studio recording would have been a better choice.
The other "disastrous" factor on this re-issue is the so-called "documentation". Not only are there no texts, but also no indications of who is singing when, no names of orchestra members, no indication of the instruments used and an accompanying essay of less than one page that I found to be thoroughly useless - it would have been simpler and more rewarding if Virgin had simply (with permission, of course) reprinted Stanley Sadie's review of the original issue from "Gramophone Magazine".