For many years I've been looking for my ideal version of Handel's great Zadok the Priest, and I'm somewhere near it at last. So far as this performance goes, I may actually have got there, all I miss in this account is a little more vividness in the recorded sound. As far as the rest of the disc goes, I have no complaints or reservations at all. The four coronation anthems are given this time in the sequence Zadok, Let thy hand be strengthened, The King shall rejoice and My heart is inditing. Opinions vary as to the appropriate order for them, but obviously if you take a different view of the matter it is very simple to sequence them however you think best. The balance of the disc is taken up with an earlier work, a birthday ode for Queen Anne, probably composed for that monarch's 48th birthday in 1713.
Back to Zadok. Please forgive a possible appearance of dogmatism if I say that the tempo is absolutely right. Cleobury's speed here is much as I remember it from the recording of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It may be faster than one is used to, but there is a very good reason for it. Even at this speed, that spine-tingling orchestral introduction takes a full minute and 20 seconds to reach the great choral chords, and it measures out the tread of the monarch and consort, one stately pace to every four notes, as they advance towards the altar steps in Westminster Abbey, the choral outburst coming as they arrive at them. The choral tone here is very full and grand. I would have been interested to know whether Cleobury has used a larger chorus at this point than later - on one occasion Handel is known to have had 500 performers in Zadok. There are certainly not 500 here, and Handel's choral writing can convey an impression of multitudes even with a smallish choir. From this point on the chorus is appropriately small, clear in its diction and even, to my delight, producing a trill on `ever'. The other three anthems are beautifully done and beautifully recorded. There are various Alleluias in the first three including Zadok, and here, as in the great chorus in Messiah, Handel scans the word sometimes as All-e-LU-ia and sometimes as All-eh-EH-lu-IA. He learned the latter way of doing it from Purcell, and 150 years after Handel's anthems Brahms uses it again in his great Triumphlied celebrating the battle of Sedan.
The words to the birthday ode are by Ambrose Phillips. They are the usual sycophantic rubbish, but `twas ever thus. In days of old such toweringly great poets as Horace and Pindar had turned out equally wince-making sentiments, they just expressed them a lot better. The music is another matter, being simply exquisite. I have been familiar with these three soloists in Handel for a couple of years now, and what a pleasure it is to listen to such perfect singing and perfect sense for the composer's style. The opening number is a heavenly duet for counter-tenor and trumpet. I was very let down at not seeing the trumpeter credited in the liner. It may be Crispian Steel-Perkins (it's good enough to be him) but we are not told. The choir of King's, the Academy of Ancient Music and the director need no introduction by now, and are at their superlative best throughout.
The liner-note, by Anthony Hicks, is helpful, informative and readable, and is given in German and French as well as in English, as are the texts to the music. The recording is really very good too, except that I was eager for just that last ounce of `presence' at the start of Zadok that would have made this disc absolutely perfect for me. The set dates from 2001 I see, so perhaps it will be reissued sometime with a little remastering, fulfilling one of my remaining aspirations in this life.