crown handel purcell versailles

The Crown – Coronation Anthems
Choir & Orchestra of the Opéra Royal/Gaétan Jarry
rec. 2022, Chapelle Royale, Versailles
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS110 [60]

At the time I am writing this review, the coronation of Charles III as monarch of the United Kingdom, succeeding his deceased mother, Elizabeth II, is just a few weeks away. It is very likely that part of the coronation ceremony will be a performance of Zadok the Priest, one of the four Coronation Anthems that Handel composed in 1727. This piece has been part of each coronation ceremony since then.

On 11 June 1727 George I, the first of the Hanoverian monarchs, had died, and three days later his only son and heir was proclaimed king by the Privy Council. The coronation ceremony was to take place on 4 October in Westminster Abbey, but was postponed one week because of the danger of flooding near the Abbey. According to tradition, the music for the service was to be written by the Organist and Composer of the Chapel Royal. That was William Croft at the time, but he died on 14 August. The Bishop of Salisbury recommended Maurice Greene as his successor, but only at 4 September he was officially appointed. However, on 9 September it was announced that “Mr Hendel, the famous Composer to the opera, is appointed by the King to compose the Anthem at the Coronation which is to be sung in Westminster Abbey at the Grand Ceremony”. That may not have come as a surprise, as in 1723 he had been given the title of Composer for the Chapel Royal.

There were quite some differences between the order of the service, as it was agreed by the Privy Council on 20 September, and what was actually performed. The reason may well have been that at that time Handel had already written most of the music. Handel did not like the fact that he was given the texts he was expected to set. According to a later anecdote, he took offence, as he thought it implied his ignorance of the Scriptures. He is reported to have said: “I have read my Bible very well, and shall chuse for myself”.

Handel composed four anthems which were to be performed during various stages of the ceremony. Let thy hand be strengthened was part of the Recognition, Zadok the Priest was performed at the Anointing, and The King shall rejoice during the Crowning. My heart is inditing was to be performed during the Coronation of the Queen. The whole ceremony was reconstructed by Robert King, and recorded for Hyperion. The Coronation Anthems are usually performed separately, but it would be nice if performers would at least observe the order in which they were originally performed. Fortunately, that is indeed the case in the present recording.

It is not exactly known how many performers were involved; a report of the rehearsals mentions a total of 40 singers and 160 players. The latter figure is almost certainly highly exaggerated, but there can be no doubt that the size of the choir and the orchestra was pretty large. It seems unlikely that any modern performance even comes close to the number of players involved in the ceremonies of 1727. In the performance under the direction of Gaétan Jarry the choir comprises 36 voices (10/8/8/10) and “[the] Orchestra of the Royal Opera of Versailles has an orchestral line-up comparable to that of Handel’s great oratorios, with 45 players: 12 violins, four violas, four cellos, three double basses, four flutes, four oboes, four bassoons, two organists-harpsichordists, six trumpets and two timpanists.” (booklet). As one may notice, there is no mention of solo voices. There are no solo episodes in these pieces, but it is generally accepted that some passages may have been allocated to a section of the choir, a kind of semi-chorus. This is practised here.

Although the programme includes some ceremonial elements, such as fanfares – apparently specifically written for this recording – and exclamations, it is in no way a historical reconstruction. The whole ceremony lasted about two and a half hours, and also included plainchant and readings. Moreover, the programme ends with a chorus from the oratorio Solomon, which had not been written at the time of the Crowning. It dates from 1748, but its inclusion makes sense, as Zadok the Priest is about the anointment of Solomon as king of Israel.

Apart from the Coronation Anthems by Handel, the programme includes two anthems by Henry Purcell. Both I was glad and My heart is inditing were written for the coronation of Charles II in 1685. The former work was also part of the coronation ceremony of 1727. It has been preserved in two versions: Purcell wrote a verse anthem and also a full anthem which was formerly attributed to John Blow and only later believed to be written by Purcell. Here the latter version is performed. The English translation of the liner-notes says: “Before the beginning of George II’s ceremony, Purcell’s Anthem My Heart Is Inditing, played for the coronation of Queen Mary of Modena in 1685, was performed by the entire choral and instrumental forces (…)”. That is at least a little confusing, as it seems to suggest that it was performed in 1727. That is not the case, and as the original French liner-notes correctly say, it was included only here to allow for a comparison between the settings of Purcell and Handel. Purcell’s anthem is performed with the same line-up as Handel’s anthems, which is almost certainly not in accordance with the practice in Purcell’s time. However, considering the purpose of this recording, that can easily be overlooked and forgiven.

This disc has been released right on time, only shortly before the coronation of Charles III. That is quite remarkable, as the recording took place only in December last year. Moreover, in 2022 the same label released a recording of the four Coronation Anthems by the Concert Spirituel under the direction of Hervé Niquet. There are some similarities between the two recordings, especially with regard to the number of singers and string players. The difference is that Niquet’s wind section is larger than here, and that has a negative effect. In Niquet’s recording I found the winds too dominant, sometimes almost overpowering the strings. In the present recording the balance between strings and winds is just right. It is probably also due to the dominance of the winds that I found Niquet often a bit too fast, at the cost of a good articulation. A comparison shows that Jarry is just as fast, sometimes even faster, but here I did not notice any problems. That may also be due to acoustical circumstances. Lastly, I was rather unsatisfied with Niquet’s performance of Zadok the Priest. I have not seen Handel’s autograph, but all the modern editions I have seen, indicate that it should start ‘soft’ or even ‘pp’ (pianissimo). Here Handel creates a strong amount of tension, which leads to a choral ‘explosion’ on the words “Zadok the Priest”. It is one of the reasons that this piece has become so popular, but little of that tension comes off in Niquet’s performance. Here Jarry delivers an impressive performance, which has just the effect Handel undoubtedly intended.

As one may have gathered by now, I am very happy with these performances. They are among the best that I have heard as far as Handel’s Coronation Anthems are concerned.

Johan van Veen

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Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
My heart is inditing (Z 30)
I was glad (Z 19)
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Let thy hand be strengthened (HWV 259)
Zadok the Priest (HWV 258)
The King shall rejoice (HWV 260)
My heart is inditing (HWV 261)
Solomon (HWV 67):
Praise the Lord
[God save King Charles!]