Dettingen Te Deum Import
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The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, is one of Britain's great mixed choirs. Under its new director, the mercurial Stephen Layton, it has reached new heights of musical excellence in this latest disc for Hyperion. Accompanied throughout by the Academy of Ancient Music, the choir performs one of Handel's most florid and dazzling works, the Dettingen Te Deum, which was written to celebrate King George II's triumphal return from the 1743 Battle of Dettingen. As might be expected, much of this work is thrillingly bellicose, but some highly refined writing shows the composer's range, expressive versatility and imagination. The disc also includes a stylish performance of the Organ Concerto No. 14 in A major with Trinity's former musical director, Richard Marlow, at the organ, as well as Handel's best-loved and most gloriously ceremonial anthem, Zadok the Priest.
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Take for instance the composer's Dettingen Te Deum, which he composed and premiered in 1743, just one year removed from the premiere of "Messiah." It is his second setting of this grand Latin text; but unlike the earlier Utrecht Te Deum, the Dettingen one, which was composed to commemorate a skirmish that the British had won in the opening years of the Austrian War of Secession, is extraordinarily grandiose and martial in nature, in the key of D Major, and with royal trumpets and timpani very much in evidence, along with a substantial choral component. Handel also shows a certain amount of solemnity and poignancy in quieter passages such as "Thou Sittest At The Right Hand Of God" as well. This quieter but no less profound side is front-and-center in the Organ Concerto No. 14, with Richard Marlow as the organ soloist, performing on an organ that was also used for the recordings of Bach cantatas made by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists. The royal atmosphere returns to conclude this recording in the form of the grand "Zadok The Priest", the first of the four Coronation Anthems that Handel was to compose for the coronation of King George II and Queen Caroline in 1727. Again, Handel's penchant for epic choral writing is extremely evident, as are the trumpets and timpani.
Ordinarily, I'm not much of a period-instrument fanatic, but the performances here by the Academy of Ancient Music, here led by Stephen Layton, a conductor at home with both modern and period ensembles, is of a piece where the performance is so in keeping with the composer's intentions that the issue of which kind of ensemble, modern or period, is best is pretty much a moot point. Neil Davies, Christopher Lowery and Robin Firth are the vocal soloists in the Dettingen Te Deum, and the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (in whose chapel this recording was made in the summer of 2007) is just as impressive. Anyone wanting to know more about Handel beyond his Big Three works would do well to get this recording, even if one is not really a period-instrument aficionado. The works on hand here, especially the Dettingen Te Deum, are each worth an intense listening experience.
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.
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