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Format: Audio CD
Looking for some modern versions of the Dettingen Te Deum I find a very wide and welcome choice. To say the least, this is not how things were not all that long ago, but out of the current range I have picked the Swiss version from Diego Fasolis, the Naxos disc and this offering from Layton and the Academy of Ancient Music, not forgetting the choir of Trinity Cambridge. This recording dates from 2007, the other two from 1999. In point of recorded quality all surpass Simon Preston's historic 1984 account, and although I don't unsay any of my enthusiastic remarks when I reviewed that some years ago, all these three surpass it on sound-quality grounds alone, and this is maybe by a small margin the best of them.
Quite aside from the performance, there is a liner note that I like, by David Vickers. It is interesting and informative regarding the background to the composition, but it also seems to me to show some recognition of the stature of it too. To put that in my own terms, even if you think of this work as mainly ceremonial, military, hearty or anything like that you will require high-quality recording for it to sound well; and if you have high-quality recording you are likely to realise that it is far more than just ceremonial and the rest of it. The text starts as a paean of praise to the Almighty, and ends as a fervent plea for salvation. A variety of moods are covered in between, and there are several huge choral climaxes, one of which may or may not be the final `let me never be confounded', depending on the conductor's view. Back to the start - it is military with a vengeance, I like that to be uninhibited and it is just terrific here, although I still like the over-the-top account from Fasolis even more. However when you have recovered from your first impressions observe the elaborate workmanship in those first four minutes and I think you will start to take with a pinch or more of salt any critical view that this music is unsubtle.
For me, any performance of the Dettingen Te Deum has to get up into the heavens, even in the first chorus. The most `expressive' bits belong on earth of course, and one of my main reasons for awarding my own top prize to this set is the superb anguished account that Neal Davies gives of `Vouchsafe O Lord' near the end. This is humanity looking upwards and appealing to the everlasting father. Elsewhere we have to be in His very presence. The text in track 5 reminds us of the more musically arid stretches of the Nicene Creed, until suddenly the chorus invokes `the Father of an infinite majesty' in one of the most awesome musical phrases in all musical creation. This is probably no great problem for a conductor who understands it as Layton obviously does, because Handel has done the work that matters, but the music of track 4 has still to find the interpreter who can handle it to my own satisfaction, although again Layton does very well indeed. The challenge is this - how do they all do full justice to the heavenly host itself singing `Holy, holy, holy' (which they do `continually, continually, continually, continually...) while still leaving something in reserve for the overwhelming `Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory'? With difficulty, I suppose.
What Layton seems to me to deal with exceptionally well is the continuity together with variety and contrast that the Te Deum involves. There are no recitatives, and although the Messiah shows more inventiveness in recitative than any other composition known to me, my own reaction to their exclusion here is my own heartfelt `Thank God.' His timing is excellent, and I don't think he adopts a single tempo that gave me any problem. The quality of the performers' work seems to me superlative. I love the precision and clarity of it all. There are three male soloists, and although the allocation of the solo parts varies among my 5 versions of the work, it doesn't seem to me a very important issue - within reason of course: after hearing Davies in `Vouchsafe' I will not be easily reconciled to hearing it done by any kind of voice other than a bass. Handel's own productions of his oratorios never presented exactly the same composition twice over, and while this is not so true of the shorter works it still disinclines me to fret over exact `fidelity'.
Unlike my other cd versions, this disc does not bring us any unfamiliar fillers. Instead we have one of the organ concertos beautifully, quietly and inwardly performed by Richard Marlow; and we have Zadok in a performance that I would call good but not outstanding. With the permission of any readers this notice may find, I want this to be a review of the mighty Dettingen Te Deum, now at last seemingly coming into its own, and for versions of Zadok perhaps you would care to look at those by Stephen Cleobury and Simon Preston as possibilities. A performance of this Te Deum needs to be full of the majesty of its glory, and this performance is that. Like everything else in the whole of music, Handel's setting of that text makes less noise than Elgar's terrific `Praise to the Holiest' does, but there is nothing in the whole of music that even begins to rival Handel's choral tone.