1707 was a miraculous year for Handel both on account of the quantity and quality of the music he wrote in the first complete year of his Italian sojourn, marking his emergence as a fully mature composer. Aside from a large body of secular cantatas, his first oratorio, an opera, and some instrumental works, he also composed a clutch of religious works, three of which are featured on this release.
The Dixit Dominus is Handel’s first undisputed masterpiece. Giulio Prandi’s account of it is marked by his perspicacity and the Ghislieri Choir’s responsiveness. Its textures are subtly integrated, fostering an immediate and lucid tone such that even the emphatic attack on ‘Juravit Dominus’ remains poised rather than monumental or overwhelming. Indeed, the continuous sequence of ‘Judicabit in nationibus’ does not build up in the same menacing fashion as in some other recordings, though the momentum is well-enough driven.
Urgency usually derives from the nuance of particular phrases and patterns within the music, such as in a little repeated arpeggio figure in the first movement to take a small example, and there is considerable energy in the ‘Et in saecula saeculorum’ fugue without sounding rushed. Curiously the grain of ‘Tu es sacerdos’ is obscured, with the broader cantus firmus lines in the bass section muddied by the welter of florid choral lines spun out over it, though there is no such problem in the similar texture of the ‘Gloria patri’.
The vocal soloists are equally idiomatic, Marta Fumagalli meaning business in ‘Virgam virtutis’ where she is, perhaps, even in danger of over-dramatising the melismas. The two sopranos beautifully mimic the exquisitely stabbing dissonances of the violins’ suspensions at the opening of ‘Dominus a dextris’, though one of them comes under strain in the higher notes later on, and again the interplay of their lines in ‘De torrente’ is haunting, showing up the uncharacteristically bland execution of the quavers in the accompaniment.
Maria Espada and Rachel Redmond share the honours in the two rarities here, by taking the religious solo cantatas ‘Ah che troppo ineguali’ and ‘Donna, che in ciel’ respectively. Where Redmond sings radiantly in the more extended prayer to the Virgin Mary in the latter work, Espada addresses her act of devotion in the briefer setting with deeper, quieter fervour. The recordings of all three works stem from live performances in various locations, giving spaciousness to the music without at all making it seem distant.
Those looking for a more overtly dramatic reading of Dixit Dominus will find John Eliot Gardiner’s more satisfying, whilst Andrew Parrott’s with the Taverner Choir and Players strikes a compelling balance between musical force and narrative cogency. But Prandi’s interpretation will stimulate Handel enthusiasts and newcomers to the work alike for his fluent and characterful approach, and the release is self-recommending to the former group on account of its inclusion of those seldom-heard compositions. The booklet includes texts and translations.