OAE/John Butt at Queen Elizabeth Hall – Hail! Bright Cecilia!, Zadok the Priest, Dixit Dominus

Hail! Bright Cecilia! – Ode for St Cecilia’s Day
Coronation Anthems – I: Zadok the Priest
Dixit Dominus

Choir of the Enlightenment
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
John Butt (harpsichord)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 November, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

It was indeed St Cecilia’s very own day, so the Purcell was apt and also a joy. But, oh dear, the heat in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was overbearing and very uncomfortable. At least one member of the OAE was seen to mouth “It’s so hot!” to a neighbour. Closer to home, my companion came near to fainting during Dixit Dominus. It was though a grand ‘back to baroque’ concert.

The short-lived Henry Purcell (1659-1695) composed his Ode to the female saint in 1692. It’s a large-scale work setting lyrics by Nicholas Brady. Purcell’s lavishness is heard from the off in the contrasts of the Overture, with trumpets and timpani adding a festive air. Over the course of this expansive piece (around 55 minutes in this performance), one is arrested by its sheer variety and invention, even including a motif that Handel may have made use of in Water Music (they are very similar!), and shadowy harmony. One appreciated the OAE’s plaintive oboes, endearing recorders, the clarity of brass (the valve-less trumpets confidently played) and drums, and the unanimity of the strings; add to which two harpsichords (one played by John Butt from a standing position while he directed). Musically, then, there was much to relish, save for the receptiveness of “… must be forc’d to yield…” in movement 8 (‘Wondrous Machine!’), the whole performance being splendid, sterling and seductive, focussed and full of beauty and delight, ornaments tucked in, rhythms firm, and slower music given time to express itself rather than succumbing to ‘authentic’ rigidity.

However, there were some miscalculations. Asking sections of the OAE to stand when effectively obbligato instrumentalists looked rather affected; there was far too long a pause before one of the movements (maybe latecomers were allowed in!) and tension dissipated; and having members leaving the Choir on numerous occasions to come to the front of the stage as soloists was an aural (footsteps) and visual distraction – the music still being played – that significantly reduced the sounds-to-senses experience. So much simpler, as well as enlightening, to have had the vocalists sing from their chorus position.

After the interval, Handel. What to say about Zadok the Priest, divorced now from its three Coronation Anthem brethren (composed for George II, 1727) and having a commercial life of its own? John Butt, a physically expressive conductor, ensured that the strings’ minimalist scales danced with life and he encouraged athletic singing from the 25-member Choir. However, he did not control its loudness (even encouraged it), which rendered the strings virtually inaudible. Authenticity was heard with trills being alternated on the correct (if wrong to us) note. Imbalance aside, this was as stirring as Messiah’s ‘Hallelujah’ can be.

An early bath for some of the OAE left the strings and a lovely-sounding chamber organ for Dixit Dominus, completed in Rome in April 1707 when Handel was 21 and enjoying the Italian leg of his life’s journey. Dixit Dominus is a total masterpiece. As in Purcell’s Ode, one can admire Handel’s harmonic richness and contrapuntal deftness, yet he seems even more patrician in his accomplishment. Handel’s compositional sleight of hand exudes every bar of this concise yet generous setting, music that exhilarates, sooths, and if sometimes church-severe, radiates a lust for life that is endearing and thrilling. Once again, unfortunately, those members of the Choir required to give a solo were choreographed to the front of the stage (even if it was for only a couple of bars!); at one point traffic-lights would have been helpful (“no, after you”). But this unnecessary palaver aside, and allowing that the solos (as also in the Purcell) were variable, if never less than good, this was a superb performance led by the enthusiastic and learned Butt, the string-playing unflagging, one movement delighting in the beguiling timbres of violoncello, organ and harpsichord, and the tutti Choir snapping and shaping with elation, sharing the same inspired leap of Faith as did George Frideric Handel all those years ago.

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