Even though the Lutheran, German-born, and later Anglicised Handel honed his compositional genius in Italy and presented various musical faces during his career, his achievement as a composer of Latin Roman Catholic vocal music remains little appreciated, with the exception of the choral Dixit Dominus. Like that work, two of the settings featured on this release originate from the young man’s time in Rome, the Gloria existing in a manuscript held by the Royal Academy of Music which was only recently confidently ascribed to Handel. Silete venti was written in London around two decades later sometime in the 1720s for an unknown purpose and singer.
The words of all the works here (except the Salve Regina) are exultant, but their settings for a soprano accompanied by a small ensemble imply more intimate devotion. Grace Davidson’s performances tend to adopt the latter manner with her quiet, intensely focused timbre and intonation emphasising the music’s inwardness. Technically these interpretations are impressive, and in general the consistency of her approach is winning, with her modestly-projected voice eschewing the histrionics of operatic music, such as in the steadily-maintained melismas of the concluding ‘Amen and Alleluia’ of the Gloria (a work not included in the HWV catalogue).
At other times these settings perhaps call for more full-bodied singing and dramatic character, not least the voice’s entry in Silete venti, urging the turbulent opening episode to halt its distracting course; Davidson’s exhortation sounds more abrupt than commanding or imperious. There is a risk that her dignified delivery of the music smooths-over its more-overt expressiveness, and in the higher range she comes under some pressure, with slightly squally tone. But more forlorn passages such as the Gloria’s ‘Qui tollis’, or the plea to the Virgin Mary of the Salve Regina, are characterised effectively with the lamenting quality of her singing or, in particular, the articulation of the phrases in the latter Motet which are lent into to underline their plaintive nature.
The accompaniments from the Academy of Ancient Music and Joseph Crouch complement Davidson’s light-touch with lithe, wiry strings that keep the music softly textured but again are sometimes too restrained. The Gloria could irradiate more vivacity, and the dotted rhythms and subsequent tussle at the opening of Silete venti need more grandeur and assertiveness.
Davidson’s singing perhaps comes into its own for Vivaldi’s celebrated Motet, especially in the more sustained melodic line of the opening movement in radiant E-major, which is better served by her consistently clear tonal quality than Handel’s more variegated writing and the final ‘Alleluia’ is attractively dainty, but could have been projected with more panache as the triumphant conclusion of this work and maybe with an imperant embellishment on the last cadence, too.
Listening all the way through comes to be a somewhat muted, monochrome experience, but each performance carves out an atmosphere of thoughtful, reflective poise capturing the settings’ interior spirit. The booklet includes texts and translations.