We forget that, although the establishment of his patron – George, Elector of Hanover – as the British monarch was a considerable inducement for Handel to stay in England, Handel had already settled in London after his period in Italy, and was busy establishing for himself a reputation both in society and at the court of the soon-to-be-dead Queen Anne. ‘Music for a Queen’, presented by King’s College Chapel choir under the direction of Joseph Fort, explored, as part of The London Handel Festival, some of Handel’s music written in those early London years.
The two pieces of religious music – the ‘Utrecht’ Te Deum and Jubilate – were both written to celebrate the signing of the eponymous Treaty ending the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713. The choir – together with a small group of un-acknowledged instrumentalists, presumably also students at King’s – gave a fresh, lively and generally well co-ordinated performance of both of these items. The soloists came from the choir, and while their voices were the as-yet-untutored voices of young people, this brought a welcome quality of freshness to the works, albeit that, on occasion, they lacked power and drama. Fort’s direction was helpful and encouraging, such that the ‘wall of sound’ produced by the full choir for the choruses was impressive, solid and well structured, although it occasionally swamped the soloists (‘To thee all Angels …’, for example seemed like an unfair competition). The instrumentalists, too, delivered creditable performances, and their short sequence of chords at the opening of the Te Deum was given an elegantly spaced marcato quality. Both pieces are packed full of fugal material, and the choir and instruments handled these with aplomb – particularly impressive was the way in which the new fugue subject in ‘O go your way’ (in the Jubilate) arose effortlessly from the existing counterpoint.
The first item in the concert was Handel’s 1713 Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne. More so than the sacred music, this piece depends on its soloists, and in Thursday’s performance, these came from the choir – Fort using the opportunity to display different combinations of its star performers. All were young voices with great promise, but, alas, not always capable of delivering vocal colour to the text to give it that extra spritz of theatricality. The choir performed well, again with energy and intelligence, although there was a tendency for the dynamic range not to sink much below a solid mezzo-forte. In all, though, an enjoyable rendition of a piece that’s usually only known through its first movement (‘Eternal source of light divine’).
The problem is, though, that Handel’s religious and court music of this period almost deliberately eschews his newly-acquired Italian style; while Handel felt at liberty to please a wider public with his Italian opera, he clearly ‘played it safe’ for church and state. The pieces, then, are worthy but a little dull, with the endless fugues making for a touch of ennui. They were good performances (and probably, because of this, carried a degree of contextual authenticity, as the original performances of the sacred items were by the choir of St Paul’s), but the works needed a little more dramatic interpretation to bring them to life. Although the chorus sang with terrific energy, their youth meant that the bass section hadn’t yet developed the dark sonorities of maturity, and the soprano sound was bright, such that the top harmonics prevailed; the presence of a double-bass, or even a bassoon, to provide anchoring to the texture would have balanced this, but, sadly, the sole bass instrument (apart from the organ continuo, excellently realised by Michael Butterfield) was a single cello.