Coronation george CDA67286

Déjà Review: this review was first published in December 2001 and the recording is still available.

The Coronation of George II
The King’s Consort/Robert King
rec. 2001, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
Hyperion CDA67286 [2 CDs: 101]

Robert King has made some major contributions to the recording of baroque music. One of his finest was to record the whole of Purcell’s anthems, a multi-disc undertaking that resulted in one of the world’s great bodies of choral music being available for the first time in superb performances. His work is often informed by his own scholarly excavations … and to dramatic effect. For example, when he concluded that there was no evidence for the trumpet music from Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary having been accompanied by drums (as it had hitherto been played in recordings), he set out to perform the music as it was on the occasion according to latest research. So what we hear in his re-creation (it is on one of the Purcell anthem discs) is the steady beating of drums alone, slowly approaching in procession from outside Westminster Abbey getting louder and louder. Suddenly they stop and the famous, mournful trumpet music starts the proceedings in the Abbey without the drum accompaniment we are so used to. It is a wonderful effect, giving an idea of the ritualistic drama of the occasion from the vantage point of a member of the congregation.

With The Coronation of George II he has set out to do something similar with a more joyous occasion and on an even grander scale. The drum procession idea is repeated but this time preceded by a rousing trumpet fanfare and before that, to start the whole thing, the “tolling bell of Westminster Abbey” . There is some licence here. The bells were recorded elsewhere, apparently because of London traffic noise. Nevertheless, there is a rumbling noise in the background which sounds suspiciously like traffic, but I did hear a bird tweet which could be said to be a little more authentic. Also, the music itself was not recorded in the Abbey. So what we have is a working semi-recreation based on meticulous research into what happened at the coronation service on the day, leaving out the spoken bits apart from shouts of “vivat”, “God save the King” and so on.

The combination of verisimilitude, superb music and splendid performance make this a fabulous recording venture. The subtitle, Handel’s coronation anthems and ceremonial music by Purcell, Blow, Tallis, Gibbons and others” suggests Handel was the musical star of the show, which in a way he was, his four great anthems being the main commissions for a state occasion more lavish than any seen before in England. But what is astonishing is the sheer quality of the music that is provided by six other English composers, all of whom by this time were dead. However, it might have been touch and go whether Handel provided any music at all. The main commissions would normally have been handed out to the Organist and Composer of the Chapel Royal, but William Croft died between the death of George I and the coronation of his son. Maurice Green was due to succeed and might have got the job to compose the music but the new King intervened, “appointing” Handel. Robert King in his excellent notes does not quote a lovely behind-the-scenes anecdote in connection with this. Years later, the next King, George III, wrote that in vetoing Maurice Green, his father “forbad … that wretched little, crooked, ill-natured insignificant … musician…and ordered that G.F. Handel should … have that great honour”. Thank goodness for the King’s judgement.

The quality of Handel’s music is matched by Purcell’s posthumous contribution, his anthem I was glad when they said unto me. Even the lesser known composers, William Child and John Farmer make short but high quality contributions; the latter’s hymn Come Holy Ghost being perfect for audience participation. The incredibly moving Litany responses are Tallis’s, contrasting well with what is mostly joyous music. These were written well over one and a half centuries earlier. I sang them many times in my school chapel choir so hearing them triggers a great sense of English musical, historical continuity. The coronation congregation must have had a similar feeling for they were hearing a range of music from renaissance to high baroque, some of it written for previous coronations and, of course, for the same building. An example is Blow’s God spake sometimes in Visions written for James II’s coronation in 1685, an anthem so substantial it is even longer than any of Handel’s. Poor Blow. His reputation has unjustly suffered by his being forever doomed into the shadow of his pupil Henry Purcell. A former organist of the Abbey, his memorial there includes the phrase “Master to the famous Mr Henry Purcell”, a back-handed epitaph if ever there was one. True, he was a variable composer, but at his best he could rival his pupil and this anthem is a worthy contribution to the occasion.

The quality of Handel’s contributions goes without saying. Among the great composers Handel is the supreme old pro. Give him a commission and he will come up with the goods – a superbly appropriate pièce d’occasionZadok the Priest is one of the most well known pieces of its type and that famous opening must have blown the hosiery off the congregation in 1728. With the performance here on disc it could well do the same for you at home but without the spacious ambience of Westminster Abbey. This brings me to an interesting aspect of performance. Robert King has recorded much of this music before: the Purcell anthem eight years ago (its first recording would you believe) and the four Handel anthems twelve years ago. He takes all of it noticeably slower this time round. I have not had the privilege of asking him the reason but I assume it may be to do with the ceremonial context that is the raison d’etre for the recording. The tempi are certainly more appropriate to the Abbey acoustic. The trouble with this is that the Abbey acoustic is not recreated here in spite of much technical and artistic effort having gone into trying to simulate an experience from the vantage point of “a privileged attendee, placed near the altar at the east end of the Abbey”. What I hear coming out of my loudspeakers is not the sound you hear when you are in a building with a hundred yards of nave and magnificent fan vaulted roofing sixty feet above. Disconcerted by the tempi at first, on second hearing I was won over particularly by the extra punch King achieves compared with his previous recordings.

This double disc set is being sold with the second one so called “free” so is selling at the price of one (mind you, each disc is shorter than the average CD). As always with Robert King, the booklet notes are superb and include a blow by blow account of the ceremony, technical recording information and full texts of the works. Irrespective of price this is a wonderful recording of superlative music in performances that surely cannot be bettered, packaged in a setting close to that in which it should be performed. It has been a while since I was so bowled over by a new recording.

John Leeman

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Child O Lord, grant the king a long life
Handel A Grand instrumental Procession
Purcell I was glad when they said unto me
Handel Let thy hand by strengthened
Tallis O God, the Father of Heaven
Farmer Come Holy Ghost
Handel Zadok the Priest
Blow Behold, O God our Defender
Handel The King shall rejoice
Gibbons Te Deum
Blow God spake sometime in visions
Handel My heart is inditing
Handel March