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This series of 11 church anthems is a sterling example of doing more with less. Though their format is multiple movements for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, inviting grand treatment, Handel had available only a couple of oboes and a small string band and choir (with no violas or altos for numbers 1 to 6). Yet each one of these anthems is a gem. Handel's music captures well the changing moods of the Psalm texts--from somber penitence to serene bliss to infectious joy to the raging of storms and seas. Though James Bowman's arias lie uncomfortably low for him, he and Michael George do fine work; Lynne Dawson, Patrizia Kwella, and Ian Partridge are delightful. Harry Christophers leads his choir and orchestra in subtly inflected and beautifully paced performances. --Matthew Westphal
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The Sixteen were already known to me in Handel from their fine Samson. However I have just been admiring them on their own in Palestrina, and I had to hear them in Handel again, because for me Handel is simply the greatest stylist of the voice who ever set words to music. It was also an opportunity to acquire and study the Chandos anthems as a complete set. Most of the music goes to the chorus, but there is plenty of solo and ensemble work, with the tenor having the lion's share. They seem to me to differ from Bach's cantatas not only in having their focus strongly concentrated on the voices rather than on instruments but also in having greater internal unity. Cantatas are to set texts for specific liturgical occasions, and are a string of separate `numbers'. As I understand it, the composer could assemble his own text for an anthem, and these anthems are units that break down into smaller subdivisions. Indeed the first anthem does not seem to me to subdivide in any way at all after the orchestral introduction, although there are breaks at six other points. Except for #9, where the first chorus has a lengthy `integral' prelude, each is preceded by a short `sonata' in slow-quick format - this is called a `sinfonia' at anthem 10, a distinction with no difference that I can detect. Arias, or detached solos and ensembles if arias is not the right word, are without da capo repetitions, and there is very little in the way of recitatives or accompagnati.
The chorus here are as superb as elsewhere, the modest but important orchestral parts are immaculate, the recording from 20 years ago is fine basically, and I like the soloists without exception. Right at the start of the first anthem Partridge is recorded in disconcertingly close focus with, as luck would have it, a long sustained `O' that will test how well you like his tone. It suits me fine, the focus adjusts almost immediately, and surely he is both a great singer and a great artist. That said, the performance calls for no more comment. The Sixteen do very well indeed, of course, in conveying depth and strength of tone even in 3-part writing - but whose is the true credit for that? Beecham tells us, if we even need telling: there has been no music since Handel's time that even feebly rivals his for grandeur and build of choral tone. However there is another aspect to Handel's vocal writing that seems to me at least as important, and one that receives less notice. I may call it the vocal rhetoric. By this I do not mean the `effects', although there are a few of those even here. The `snares fire and brimstone' of the second anthem are not treated pictorially, more as just a musical exclamation at such phenomena. However the earthquake and the thunder in #10 are spectacular to this day, I can almost literally see the lightning, and it was surely the capacity to do this kind of thing with such slender resources that led Mozart to say that Handel was the master of them all. Still, I come back to it - there is a deeper characteristic to Handel's musical rhetoric.
Listen attentively to the word-setting just as a technique. Observe the resourcefulness in the matter of repetition, with the musical phrases constantly varied and often the words repeated to different music entirely. Note the combining of phrases, the shortening, the rearrangements, and the associated stylistic features like the changes of pace, stops and starts, and irregular phrase-lengths. It is something entirely without parallel. It takes word-setting out of the ordinary realm of finding music that will express the mood and reflect the spoken rhythm of the words. Speech is no longer what governs this musical utterance, the utterance has become the province of a purely musical design.
This is all done with haughty ease and naturalness, and it was the kind of thing that led Haydn, on his last triumphant visit to London and at the height of his own great powers, to lament that Handel made him feel a novice. Understand this aspect of Handel's style and you will understand his melody better too. Hanslick, superficial as usual, deplored the lack of a freer modern melodic idiom in Handel, and indeed it seems to me that the entire reaction against him, partly caused by travesties in performance and partly by the appalling oratorio tradition that purported to be his legacy, led to the European musical culture as a whole losing contact with his special idiom and excellence. Tovey for one keeps talking about `Bach and Handel' when all he means is Bach. Beethoven had different ideas, and now that a generation or two has emerged from this era of heresy perhaps we can hear Handel with purified ears and begin to appreciate why Beethoven pronounced him the greatest composer who ever lived.