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The Lord Said

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Handel, Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne / Dixit Dominus, H. Guilmette, A. Scholl, A. Wolf, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Vocalconsort Berlin, M. Creed

(released on October 13, 2009)
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902041 | 56'24"
The Handel Year, marking the 250th anniversary of the composer's death, has brought some productions of his operas to our eyes and some great recordings to our ears, again notably of the operas. Add to it this new release of sacred works that, arguably, do not need new recordings, but which given the combination of forces has considerable appeal. Handel wrote his setting of Psalm 109 (HWV 232) -- Dixit dominus, the first psalm of the Vespers service -- when he was only 22 years old and on a trip to Italy. It came into my ears first in the landmark recording by Simon Preston and the Westminster Abbey Choir, with the incomparable soprano Arleen Augér. That classic disc, re-released by Archiv a couple years ago at a very good price, is hard to beat. Other interesting choices include the very French version led by Emmanuelle Haïm and Le Concert d'Astrée boasts Natalie Dessay and Philippe Jaroussky and pairs the work with Bach's Magnificat (Virgin Classics), while Marc Minkowski's version with Les Musiciens du Louvre, also excellent, places it among an assortment of other Handel liturgical works and has a lovely pairing of sopranos, Magdalena Kožená and Annick Massis (Archiv).

Still, for the one Dixit dominus to own, the only recording that might challenge Preston is Andrew Parrott's older recording with Emma Kirkby and the Taverner Players (Virgin Classics Veritas). Musically, it is not as satisfying, but the musicological interest is greater, because Parrott situates the Dixit dominus and several other Handel works for Vespers, in the context of an actual (highly speculative) Vespers service (plus, a 2-CD set at $10.98 is a steal too good to pass up). Up against that competition, Harmonia Mundi's new recording features exciting, incisive playing especially, from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, but the choral singing is not as polished. The soloists seem a little mismatched, with countertenor Andreas Scholl struggling at times to make himself heard, and Hélène Guilmette, while lovely at times, is no Arleen Augér. In the other work heard here, the much less recorded Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (for the official celebration on February 6, 1713 -- not long before the queen died), the performance is more satisfying from all sides, with only the occasional charming but odd pronunciation of English to be faulted. It is not enough to recommend this disc as a must-listen, but downloading just the Ode would be a good option for anyone looking for a recording of that work alone.

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