Lufthansa Festival at Westminster Abbey – Handel’s Queen Anne Ode & Dettingen Te Deum with Iestyn Davies and James O’Donnell

Symphony No.5 in D
Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne
‘Dettingen’ Te Deum

Ruby Hughes (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor) & Matthew Brook (bass)

The Choir of Westminster Abbey

St James’s Baroque
James O’Donnell

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 22 May, 2014
Venue: Westminster Abbey, London

William Boyce (1711-79)The two major works of this programme were composed for royal occasions at very different stages of Handel’s career in London. William Boyce’s Symphony is no less celebratory in manner, having been adapted by the English composer from the Overture to his Ode for St Cecilia’s Day from 1739. Like the other pieces here, St James’s Baroque and James O’Donnell gave a performance of ideal tempo and sufficient weight for the space of Westminster Abbey to support a sense of grandeur, though also preserving the music’s vivacity, as in the Symphony’s second-movement gavotte.

The interpretation of Handel’s Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (1713) certainly encompassed a dimension of private music-making (albeit of a regal sort) though the vocal soloists were slightly at odds in that. Iestyn Davies adopted an approach which was more akin to vocal chamber music than the notably more operatic delivery of Ruby Hughes and Matthew Brook.

Though Davies projected somewhat more forcefully in subsequent movements, the exquisite opening section ‘Eternal source of light divine’ sounded too relaxed, without sufficient vocal tension and lustre to match that of the solo trumpet. There seemed to be less of the cool purity one often thinks of in relation to Davies’s voice, than a mellower, well-rounded depth of tone. That fitted better with the aching dissonances which resulted from the blend of his vocal part with Hughes’s in ‘Kind Health descends on downy wings’. The Choir of Westminster Abbey took care to mould each entry of their refrain, “The day that gave great Anna birth, / Who fix’d a lasting peace on earth”, in accordance with the mood of the preceding solo sections, though Handel’s music certainly facilitates this with the variety of his settings, giving the cue to the performers on the final occasion to sing and play with joyful but dignified ceremonial.

The same was also true in the ‘Dettingen’ Te Deum (1743) where O’Donnell gave full expression to the dramatic possibilities of the score without exaggerating or caricaturing them. Handel set this canticle on the last occasion that a British monarch personally led an army into battle, and it seems that he expected an ostentatious public service would ensue in St Paul’s Cathedral. In the event a more subdued and private thanksgiving took place in the Chapel Royal of St James’s Palace. Handel’s burgeoning experience of making grand choral statements comes to the fore in this setting, and this performance under O’Donnell benefited from the broad account given in the Abbey. He and the Choir utilised the space to accumulate steadily a resounding musical texture on such a verse as “All the earth doth worship thee”, and they also drew some solemn lines (like a cantus firmus) in ‘To thee all angels cry aloud’ and ‘The glorious company of the apostles’.

Compared with the Ode, the two soloists had relatively little music to sing. Brook sang his well-controlled melismas with suitably less swagger, whilst Davies with a quiet, almost too casual, devotion. In both the Ode and Te Deum the two trumpet soloists (though which of the four names listed under trumpets in the programme was not clear) brought a commensurate degree of sonic splendour to performances which struck a convincing balance between celebration and liturgical decorum.

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