Monday, January 4, 2016

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and vocal soloists perform three of Handel's Chandos Anthems

The great German Baroque composer Georg Frideric Händel (1685-1769) arrived in England in 1712, establishing Britain as his new home and winning great popularity and respect among the concert-going public there. It was in 1717 that Henry James Brydges, the first Duke of Chandos, took him into his employ at Cannons, the Duke’s palatial mansion near London.  There Händel became chapel master, with another German, Dr. Johann Christoph Pepusch serving as composer-in-residence.  A flautist and an extravagant patron of the arts, the Duke kept a fine team of over 20 musicians at Canons, among them Francesco Scarlatti (Alessandro’s brother) and Johann Christoph Bach, J.S.Bach’s cousin. Händel would certainly have played the organ in the Church of St. Lawrence on the Cannons estate and the eleven Chandos Anthems, three of which were performed on December 31st 2015 at the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s third subscription concert of the 2015-2016 season in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of  Friendship, the Jerusalem International YMCA, would surely have been performed in this dramatic setting, its walls and ceilings covered with frescoes of biblical scenes painted by the most celebrated artists of the day.

Händel knew the Bible well, choosing texts based on the Psalms for the Chandos Anthems, allowing each text to inspire him with the wealth of musical ideas that go to make up this collection. In his program notes, Maestro David Shemer, founder and musical director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, talks of the unusual scoring of the hymns - works for three voices and for six and “scored for an ensemble of violins and basso continuo”, bassoon and one oboe, with no violas in the instrumental group and no alto voice in the vocal ensemble. Shemer reminds his listeners that the Chandos Anthems preceded the composer’s oratorios, “the musical genre that brought Händel so much fame”.

In inverse chronology but to whet audience members’ appetite with a work more familiar to them, the concert opened with the Overture to Händel’s oratorio “Judas Maccabaeus” (1746), a dramatic overture in the French style.  Presenting the two-part overture, refined, majestic and energizing in its royal pomp, the JBO players set the scene for the inspiring Händel program.

The three singers performing the solos and duets, but also forming the choir in the program comprising three of the Chandos Anthems – “I will magnify Thee” Anthem V HWV 250a, “As pants the hart for cooling springs” Anthem VI HWV 251a and “O be joyful in the Lord” Anthem I HWV 246, were Hadas Faran Asia-soprano, Doron Florentin-tenor and Yair Polishook-bass.  The three Israeli singers gave engaging performances, celebrating the wealth of contrapuntal and timbral interest of the choruses. As to the works’ solos and duets, these pieces gave the audience time to ponder the unique contribution of each singer: laying her operatic persona aside, Faran Asia related to the texts with devotional empathy and warmth, with flowing easeful and melismatic melodic lines, giving attention to the instrumental and vocal expression happening around her. Contending splendidly with the variety and demands of the tenor role, Florentin, his voice aggregating color and consistency, was expressive and active in narrating the text, relating to such musical/textual features as the vibrant play of mood changes and dissonances in “The Lord preserveth” (Anthem VI). Polishook’s musicality and understanding of the Baroque genre are well known; his addressing the importance of a solid base to the vocal ensembles of the anthems, his highlighting of a key phrase here and there and his signature quality of relating a text in its full meaning contributed much to the performance. The oboe and bassoon parts, the linchpin of the Chandos Anthems and an essential element of their expressive aspect, were performed adeptly by Tal Levin and Gilat Rotkop, as in their duet in the opening duet of “As pants the hart for cooling springs”. In the latter anthem, singers and orchestra brought a tear to the eye in their conveying of the anthem’s fragility, its grief and drama; the final chorus “Put thy trust in God” is written in opulent contrapuntal musical language of such a high order that one is at a loss to focus on all voices, let alone on some. These works bristle with superb instrumental writing. In their fresh, energetic and sensitive reading of the beautiful, intimate settings of liturgical texts, whose beauty does not fall from that of Händel’s oratorios, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, conducted by David Shemer, gave listeners a thrilling opportunity to hear these rarely-heard works splendidly performed .

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