May 25, 2010
It’s not as rare as one might think, from the constant reports of the demise of the classical recording industry, to encounter great new recordings of unfamiliar music. All the same, this recent release by the Göttingen Festival Orchestra, the NDR Choir, and a stellar cast of soloists under the direction of Nicholas McGegan is rather astonishing. There can’t be many people who’ve encountered any one of the three works on this recording before, let alone all of them. And yet the wonder, once you’ve heard the disc, is that such good music should be essentially unknown.
The main item is the Dettinger Te Deum, a work that Handel wrote in 1743 to commemorate a victory of the English over the French in the course of the Austrian War of Succession. So what’s it doing here sung in German? Well, this is Mendelssohn’s edition, with a few added wind and brass parts and a small amount of streamlining.
McGegan has delved into Mendelssohn’s Handel revisions before (see SFCV’s review of a Handel/Mendelssohn Acis and Galatea here). The revelation on this CD, though, is not so much what Mendelssohn wrought on Handel as what Handel wrought on Mendelssohn.
Listen to the Music
Haydn: The Storm (Hob XXIVa:8)
This is big, ceremonial Handel, with a lot of large D-major choruses (the better to break out the trumpets and drums). At places, Mendelssohn does indeed add something to the splendor. In Der Engel Chor (The angelic choir), Mendelssohn’s fuller wind band accompanying the lower voices is a master stroke: Hear it once scored like that, and you’ll feel cheated ever after by the original.
But there are places where you know it’s the younger composer learning from the older one. Du sitzest zu der Rechten (Thou sittest at the right hand of God) is a calm trio — once again for the three lower choral voices — and you could frankly slot that number into Mendelssohn’s Elijah with hardly anyone’s being the wiser. And yet Mendelssohn didn’t do anything to it; he left it alone, with just the three choral lines and spare strings-and-oboes accompaniment.
The rest of the disc is Haydn-related, and people unfamiliar with McGegan might wonder what these particular pieces are doing alongside the Te Deum.The simple answer is that McGegan loves Handel and loves Haydn, and as one in the same position I’m fine with that.
Haydn’s The Storm follows the Handel/Mendelssohn. I’m in the peculiar position of having played violin in this piece for two completely unrelated performances in my late teens, and not having encountered it ever since. Haydn called it a “madrigal,” which is strange in itself — the very name was practically dead a century prior. It’s a dramatic choral account of a storm at sea, twice interrupted by a prayer for calm in hymn-style. The second prayer ends the piece. As for the stormy bits, anyone who knows Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ need only imagine the concluding earthquake, extended, with words attached. There seems to have been a musical vernacular for natural disasters.
This is late Haydn (1792 — one tale has it that it was inspired by a nasty English Channel crossing on his first London visit), and it’s curious that no other recordings are easily accessible. In a couple of places the soprano pitch sags ever so slightly, but otherwise this is as fine a performance as you could want.
And then there is the real treasure: Luigi Cherubini’s Chant sur la Mort de Haydn. Cherubini jumped the gun, writing the piece in 1805 on erroneous reports of Haydn’s death, then four years distant. But he wrote a magnificent tribute. The parts with choir and soloists are a trifle chipper and glib, but the instrumental introduction is seriously impressive. This is a composer who assimilated the “Chaos” of The Creation pretty much before anyone else did, and used it in a way I don’t think anyone else thought to do until much later. The inchoate growls of the low strings, the plaints of the winds ... it’s music of consequence, commemorating a death of consequence, and the Göttingen forces play the hell out of it.
And, as with the Haydn, this is practically the only recording of the piece in print, and certainly the best. That cello/bass/bassoon growl at the opening is reason enough for seeking out the disc.
I’m not really in a position to evaluate the diction of the NDR Chorus in the Cherubini, having no French. Their English (in the Haydn) is occasionally odd but not disturbingly so; and their German (in the Handel) is naturally fine, clear and crisp. All the solo singers are excellent; I was most happy to hear more of the under-recorded Dominique Labelle, though her colleagues here are in her league.