George Frideric Handel: Dixit Dominus
Soloists: Isobel Buchanan, Ann Mackay (sopranos) Michael Chance (alto) William Kendall (tenor) Henry Herford (bass)
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and the English Chamber Orchestra.
Conductor: Stephen Cleobury
Recorded in 1990. ASIN: B00000E3PA
Cambridge, in the flat fenlands of eastern England, still seems remarkably small-town. Nowadays the University (which is spread through the town Centre) is surrounded by research parks in the sciences and biotechnology – but it is all very discreet, lots of greens, trees, bicycles, young men and women. There are 31 Colleges, which are residential units which house, feed, and provide small-group tutorials for students, who are chosen in a wide range of disciplines, and come from all over. The different Colleges usually have three-or four-storied buildings of all ages, built round spacious courtyards. Apart from the student’s rooms, a College has a Hall for eating, a library, a Chapel, and some recreational and sporting facilities (squash and tiddleywinks, perhaps).
And there, at the heart of Cambridge, you can come – no queues and no charge – about as close to heavenly music as you are likely to get.
King’s College Chapel and the Choir
King’s is one of the Colleges that straddles the River Cam, but on the western bank there is no building, so you can get a fine view of the lawns between the river and the residential blocks, and the west window of the Chapel. The Chapel was completed in 1547, for the purpose of holding a daily service. When you step inside, you immediately get the feeling of your insignificance in the universe, for the ceiling is right up there, six stories above, supported by the most magnificent and delicate fan vaulting. The stained-glass windows are enormous, and the chairs seem tiny in comparison. About two-thirds of the way down its length, the organ loft bestrides the Chapel, and on the other side, the pews are set along the sides, leading up to the altar. In the middle section, the first two rows are occupied on both sides by the Choir, 30 strong, and on a weekday Evensong, you (yes, you the public!) can occupy the row immediately behind them.
The Choir has 16 boy sopranos, who look about 7 to 13 years old, and another 14 male choral scholars, who sing alto, tenor and bass. Both boys and men live and study at the College, aided by generous grants. Although this setup is not unusual in England – other Colleges (notably St. John’s Cambridge) and Cathedrals throughout the country do it as well – King’s is able to select choristers of the highest ability, both for quality of voice and for musicianship. King’s became well-known in good part because of the service of Nine Lessons and Carols, which is held on Christmas Eve. The Directors of Music at King’s have become national figures – Boris Ord (1929-57) was recognized for the high standards of excellence he achieved, a tradition carried on by Sir David Willcocks (57-74), Philip Ledger (74-82) and Stephen Cloebury (1982 until now).
But what will surprise you, sitting right behind the choir, is their security, precision, musical expression, and astounding tone quality. If you want to hear a chord sung really in tune, that’s it. And when they stop, the sound melts up into the recesses of the Chapel’s ceiling…. Since every service has psalms set to chants, one or two anthems, some hymns, and they do it with different music every day (as well as practise for concerts and recordings) you will guess that they read music with enormous facility. Facing each other across the aisle, the choristers don’t always have a conductor. Then they keep things together by looking at each other, while two of the men choristers raise and lower one finger of each hand to time the entries and cut-offs – the cue is three-part – prepare, breathe, sing. And then out flows the sound, from pianissimo to fortissimo, unpretentious and beautiful. The clean, pure voices of the boy sopranos give the choir’s sound a special touch.
Handel’s Dixit Dominus
Handel was born in Halle, Saxony in 1685, came to live in England in 1712 and died there in 1759 (nine years years after Bach died). In 1706 he travelled to Italy, and stayed there until 1710.During his time there, he absorbed the Italian musical style as if to the manner born, and he wrote Dixit Dominus in 1707 when he was 22. It is a setting of Psalm 110 – colourful, bold, immediately appealing. In fact, it sounds a bit as if Handel set himself to show his Italian colleagues he could do their thing, and even better. Innovative, at times a big exaggerated, it sounds like the work of a young man eager to experiment and impress.
Not surprisingly, it is a challenge to soloists and choir. It is written for Sopranos I and II, alto, tenor and bass, for both soloists and chorus. The Soprano IIs have to be able to sing high As, while there are several high Bflats for the Soprano I! At times too, the writing is complex – it certainly requires a good choir to pull it off.
The opening chorus Dixit Dominus intersperses soloists and chorus, in a joyous, bouncy movement. Handel here often uses a long sustained note in one voice part, which heightens the tension. Virgem Virtutis is a duet for alto soloist and cello, together with the orchestra. In this, alto Michael Chance shows prodigious breath control and beautiful phrasing. Tecum principium is for soprano soloist and orchestra – lovely long flowing phrases.Then we slow the tempo right down in Juravit Dominus – long chords modulating from one to another in often surprising ways. Tu es sacerdos for the choir again has long flowing lines which intertwine, while Dominus a dextris tuis is just the opposite – here the orchestral bass moves rapidly, while the choir and soloists sing long sustained notes. This has a great solo from the bass, where you can hear his voice filling the Chapel, echo and all. Judecabit in nationibus has the same sort of feel to it as the long Amen at the end of the Messiah. But the second part is unusual, because the word conquassabit is sung repeatedly, divided up into four separate chords, an idea which doesn’t work all that well. De torrente in via bibet finally sees Handel in a more sombre, pained mood, which the two sopranos sing most expressively. Then a long, complicated Gloria Patri for soloists and choir rounds it off. The fugue for et in saecula saeculorum is introduced with a change in tempo, and builds to an exciting climax.
As the echoes die away in the Chapel, one can reflect that the men and boys pulled it off with vigour and spirit, and it was certainly