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Handel With Spirit, Handel With Care

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/13/2023 -  
George Frideric Handel: Coronation Anthems: Zadok the Priest, HWV 258, Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened, HWV 259, My Heart is Inditing, HWV 261, & The King Shall Rejoice, HWV 260 – Music for the Royal Fireworks, HWV 351 – Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, HWV 74
Iestyn Davies (Countertenor), Joélle Harvey (Soprano), Sumner Thompson (Baritone)
La Chapelle de Québec, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Bernard Labadie (Principal Conductor)

B. Labadie/G. F. Handel (© Luc Delisle)

Handel is only fourth-rate. He is not even interesting.
Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky

Handel was the greatest composer who ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.
Ludwig van Beethoven

So finally Carnegie Hall seems to be taking an interest in next-month’s coronation of... Is it King Chester? King Christopher? Oh, that’s right: King Charley!

I doubt if the Orchestra of St. Luke’s cared, their honor being a gorgeous ornament to New York for nearly 50 years. La Chapelle de Québec would be banned from their French-speaking province if they showed any allegiance to the doings of Westminster Abbey. Ditto conductor Bernard Labadie, a proud Canadian.

The one name which might have celebrated next month’s festivities was the first person granted British citizenship: that German-speaking, Italian-educated European-cosmopolite George Frideric Handel. And with the glorious choral music heard last night, he would probably have feigned–even believed?– in the forthcoming investiture of Charley and the other woman... Queen Catherine? Cassandra?? Oh, yes, Camille.

Handel is well worthy to share the British empyrean with Purcell, Britten and Elgar. Not only as a great composer, but–as the concert showed last night–a man who adopted British grandeur, British melody, and–especially in his operas–British honor for Old Testament, New Testament, even Asian legends.

The choices of Maestro Labadie were not operatic. One was gloriously orchestral, four were choral anthems, and one was a rather negligible Ode on the birthday of the sad Queen Anne. Thanks to the grand singing from the imported Chapelle de Québec and Baroque grandiose orchestral playing from St. Luke’s Orchestra, New York audiences were offered a meal which might have satisfied the rotund composer himself.

One work was new to this listener. The Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne was a made-to-order choral-solo work, made to endear the German emigrant to Her Majesty. The verses, though, by one Ambrose Philips, made even the usual Royal bootlicking seem mild. Each verse ending “The day that gave great Anna birth/who fix’d a lasting peace on earth” was augmenting words showing how animals, hissing tongues and even angels were happy to dwell in Queen Anne’s aura.

I. Davies/S. Thompson

While few of the verses contained Handelian inspiration, the three soloists here offered vigorous singing, starting with a Purcellian duet between trumpet and counter‑tenor Iestyn Davies, both of them with voices of effortless ease. Add to this soprano Joélle Harvey with a stunning high register, and baritone Sumner Thompson, in one aria, perhaps the only aria giving a foretaste of the immortal Handel still to come.

The original orchestration for the noble Fireworks Music was a happy celebration. I say “original”, but the program notes gave a new factoid. The first performance had been for a hundred-odd winds, brass and percussion. Handel himself pleaded to add a full string consort. But King George II insisted on “only martial instruments”, so Handel had to wait a few months for his choice.

Curiously, my first live discovery was in Macao. Specifically, near the Outer Harbor. A brassy ensemble was on the sidewalk curvature, and three barges fitted with aggregations of fireworks came sailing through the Outer Harbor blazing away. Blazing away 18th Century style.

The authentic show was created by an authentic Guangzhou firework historian-archivist. Thus, these were not the fireworks of Macy’s Fourth of July. But within their provincial dressing, one had an idea of the original festivities in London’s Green Park. Add to this last night St. Luke’s expert playing, with what seemed to be ancient trumpets, and loud enough percussion, and the effects was quite delicious.

Starting and ending the concert were four Coronation Odes. The first, Zadok the Priest, will doubtless be played a King Charley’s investiture. Though preceding or following Bette Midler will still have to be decided by the Royal Judges.

Still, here Zadok was shown as one of Handel’s true masterworks. Those Italian arpeggios, the modulations, the introductory tensions led, last night to the most exciting choral entry with trumpets, with drums with Mr. Labadie’s spirited conducting.

The other odes were sung with enough spirit. But only the final The King Shall Rejoice was given an uninhibited combination of grandeur, nobility and–dare I say it?–an honest Imperial solemnity.

Harry Rolnick



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