United Kingdom Handel: Genesis Sixteen / Badinerie, Jessica Cale (soprano), Tim Morgan (Countertenor), Genesis Sixteen / Badinerie / Harry Christophers and Robin Jacobs (conductors), Dora Stoutzker Concert Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 15.3.2015.
‘Pompe vane di morte’ and ‘Dove Sei’ (from Rodelinda)
‘Lascia ch’io panga’ (from Rinaldo)
‘Most cruel Edict’ and ‘The Raptur’d Soul’ (from Theodora)
‘Volate, amori’ (from Ariodante)
While Dixit Dominus may not perhaps be amongst the very greatest of Handel’s compositions, it is certainly a work of considerable importance in any understanding of what one might call the trajectory of Handel’s career, as well as the nature of his achievement as a composer. This setting of the Latin text of Psalm 109 was very probably the first of the sacred works which he composed after his arrival in Rome, following his departure from Hamburg late in 1706. He seems to have been in Rome quite early in 1707, and April of that year seems to be the likeliest date for the composition of Dixit Dominus, when he would have reached the age of twenty two just two months earlier. During his time in Germany, the young Handel had naturally been aware of Italian music – he seems, for example, to have met both Bononcini and Ariosti around 1696. And even before that, when he studied with Friedrich Zachow, organist of the Marienkirche in Halle, we have the testimony of John Hawkins that his teacher “put into the hands of his young pupil the works of the greatest among the Italian and German composers”. Handel’s exact contemporary Bach was exposed to many of the same Italian influences, both though his teachers and through the example of the relatively Italianate work (or at least some of it) of Schütz. But Bach chose to remain a German church musician (even though, of course, he absorbed and made his own some of these Italian influences), seemingly without Handel’s eagerness to encounter Italian music and its characteristic forms more directly and to adopt many of its idioms more fully. In his repeatedly illuminating book Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach (2013) John Eliot Gardiner has much to say about this comparison/contrast (notably in his third and fifth chapters, ‘The Class of ‘85’ and ‘The Mechanics of Faith’). He invites us to compare, for example, Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden with Dixit Dominus – this, too, was written when its composer was 22). Gardiner himself observes that “Where Bach is yoked to Luther, Handel, decidedly more the man of the world even at this stage, shows us why he was so drawn to Italy, responding like Dürer and Schütz before him, and Goethe later on [one might add, inter alia, Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony] to her landscape, her art in all its vitality and vivid colours, and of course her music … And even at this stage there are pointers to the divergent future preoccupations of these two giants: love, fury, loyalty and power (Handel); life, death, god and eternity (Bach).”
Dixit Dominus is full of vividly ebullient music. It is the work of a young Master, its energy the expression of a young composer realizing his own powers, exercising his command of a musical idiom which, even if it wasn’t literally new to him, had only recently hit him (and fascinated him) in its full immediacy and power (in the work of, for example, Corelli, Carrissimi, Steffani and Alessandro Scarlatti). The rhythmic momentum, the extravagance and sheer dazzle of some of the writing for both voices and strings – this is a composer confidently, but not arrogantly, recognizing both his liberation from his earlier masters (both in terms of musical idiom and in the sense of an apprentice becoming a Master – Dixit Dominus is, in the most literal meaning of the term, a ‘masterpiece’) and something of the possibilities opened up by the meeting of his own talent with this ‘new’ tradition. It marks the moment when Handel’s path as a composer, in important respects, was defined – ahead lie the operas and much else.
As such, the piece is apt for performance by a young choir and orchestra such as Genesis Sixteen and Badinerie, given its youthful vitality and sense of self-discovery. But there are other reasons for being less certain about its suitability. To quote John Eliot Gardiner for a second and final time (this time from his booklet essay for his 1978 recording of Dixit Dominus): “Handel is pitiless in the demands he makes of his musicians in the course of the eight movements: he requires energy and breadth, phenomenal agility and precision, declamatory vigour and lyrical expressiveness”. A work that is “pitiless in its demands” might surely demand too much from young singers and players? But Genesis Sixteen is no ordinary youth choir.
The website of The Sixteen describes the project thus:“Genesis Sixteen is The Sixteen’s free young artists’ scheme which aims to nurture the next generation of talented ensemble singers. During the course of a year, a series of week-long and weekend courses are led by key figures from The Sixteen, including founder and conductor Harry Christophers and Associate Conductor Eamonn Dougan. Participants receive group tuition, individual mentoring and masterclasses run by some of the industry’s top vocal experts. Thanks to a close partnership with the Genesis Foundation participants not only receive free tuition but also a bursary to cover all additional costs”. Singers are chosen through a series of auditions – in which some 2-300 singers participate, 22 eventually being chosen. These are, then, amongst the best of the nation’s young singers, who are then given a deal of specialist training. The scheme is now in its fourth year and singers from the previous three years have already gone on to work with the Sixteen itself, as well as Tenebrae, Stile Antico and other major choirs.
So they are a hand-picked group of young singers, trained (or perhaps one should say, in the process of being trained) under the supervision of one of the modern masters of choral singing. For this concert, the culmination of a weekend’s training in Cardiff and for which, remarkably, admission was free, they were joined by two soloists Tim Morgan and Jessica Cale, both of them ‘graduates’ of the scheme, and Badinerie, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama’s own period instrument orchestra. Twenty three strong Badinerie’s student forces were strengthened and supported by the experienced violinist Simon Jones, head of string performance at the College (whose credits include the European Baroque Orchestra, the Academy of Ancient Music, Florilegium, the Dunedin Consort and Arcangelo) and the excellent David Miller (well-known as a solo lutenist, an accompanist and a member of the continuo section of many an early-music ensemble). With Jones as their leader and Miller (playing theorbo) at their heart of their continuo section, Badinerie played with the necessary precision, spark and energy.
The violin arpeggios of the orchestral introduction were richly dramatic and there was a pleasing spring in the step of Badinerie’s playing, before the choir’s reading of ‘Dixit Dominus’ displayed a healthy humanity of attack, even if clarity of diction occasionally suffered a little. Tim Morgan was an impressive soloist in ‘Virgam virtutis tuae’, both expressive and intelligently attentive to the text, with some attractively sustained notes. In ‘Tecum principatus in die virtutis tuae’ Jessica Cale was a thoroughly competent soloist, though she is not yet a singer of any great individuality; the aria was well paced and structured by both soloist and orchestra. The choir was utterly convincing in ‘Juravit Dominus’ coping admirably with both with the somewhat mysterious opening and the rapid and assertive writing which follows it and precedes the richly harmonic close. At the end of this movement Harry Christophers left the stage and was replaced by Robin Jacobs, a young conductor, also receiving training as part of the Genesis scheme. Jacobs conducted ‘Tu es sacerdos’, ‘Dominus a dextris tuis’ and ‘Judicabit in nationibus’, before Christophers returned to conduct the last two movements. Jacobs didn’t let the intensity or energy of the performance slacken, even if there were just one or two moments of vocal raggedness during ‘Dominus a dextris tuis’ (which may not have been his fault).
In ‘Judicabit in nationibus’ he drew some passages of splendid opulence from both choir and orchestra. The baton was back in Harry Christophers’ hands for ‘De torrente in via bibet’ and the closing Doxology, ‘Gloria Patri …’ These received powerful and vivacious performances and the fugal textures of the closing Amen were lucid and moving. It would be silly to say that this performance fully matched the very best professional performances of modern times, but there were no serious deficiencies and much to admire and enjoy. To hear this piece performed so well by singers and performers who, in very large part, were as young or younger than Handel was when he composed it, was a real and distinctive pleasure. The freshness and vitality of the youthful performers articulated very forcefully the ‘excitement’ one senses that the young composer had in creating the piece.
Dixit Dominus was, rightly, the main work on this programme. It was preceded by a number of solo items for Tim Morgan and Jessica Cale. Though I intend no disrespect to Ms. Cale, much of whose singing I enjoyed, it has to be said that, for the moment at least, Mr. Morgan (though still an undergraduate at the Royal College of Music) is the more assured soloist, at least on the evidence of this concert. His technical certainty and his considerable vocal power, are at the service of a responsive attention to his text(s). If I say that he is a very promising singer indeed, that is not in any way meant to suggest that his work is not already eminently listenable to, and that the listener has to make not the slightest allowance for his youthfulness. His readings of ‘Dove Sei’ and ‘The Raptur’d Soul’ were the highlights of the first half of the programme. Jessica Cale has an attractively ‘pure’ soprano voice but as yet she doesn’t vary its colours sufficiently and in the coloratura of items such as ‘Volate, amori’ from Ariodante, her singing doesn’t quite have that final degree of virtuosic ease and exuberance. As yet the overall effect is of a rather ‘nicely polite’ Englishness rather than of Italianate passion. But she, too, is young and her potential is clear to see and hear.