The Other Handel Part II by David Wihowski

In answer to my opening query to name some other Handel works, I will highlight a few. 

Dixit Dominus is one of the works Handel composed during his sojourn in Italy. It is a youthful, virtuosic work for five soloists, five-part choir and orchestra (I have performed it with choir and it was exhilarating as well as mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting). This setting of the vesper Psalm 110 (109 Vulgate) runs a gamut of Baroque moods, from melodious  to poignant, from fiery to tranquil. The masterful contrapuntal movements (mostly the choral movements) put him at the front of the Baroque class along with Bach and a few of the other masters of that technique. The thrilling opening and final choruses are examples of the choral writing style and technique that made so many later composers beholden to him. There are a number of recordings, though some (none mentioned below) point out the difficulty of the piece by their flaws. John Eliot Gardiner's recording with the Monteverdi Choir & Orchestra is very good and has perhaps one of the best renditions of the penultimate movement ("De torrente in via bibet"), an exquisite soprano duet; this recording also contains a very good version of Coronation Anthem No. 1, "Zadok, the Priest" (the moment the choir enters after the gradual, anticipatory crescendo of the orchestra is almost heart-stopping). Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have tackled the vocal challenges of the "Dixit" handily on their fine recording-- his choir of excellent singers is up to the rather energetic tempi he chooses for some of the choruses. David Bates with La Nuova Musica and soprano Lucy Crowe have created another notable recording which contains a Vivaldi setting of the same text--a nice foil by another Baroque master. The duet, "De torrente..." is approached from a slightly different angle on this recording, but is equal to that on the Gardiner recording at least technically. Another very good recording, though a bit plodding at times, is by The Choir of King's College, Cambridge & Choir of Winchester Cathedral & Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford; it contains a number of other fine Handel pieces, including all of the Coronation Anthems. 

Ode for St. Cecilia's Day matches the great composer with Dryden's fine poem of the same name. Handel's setting is virtually flawless to my musical sensibilities. It is scored for choir, soloists and a colorful (by Baroque standards) orchestra. A very good video by Les Arts Florissants is: There are a few flaws, but this appears to have been some sort of "live performance." Of note on this video are the valve-less Baroque ("natural") trumpets, the playing of which is almost a lost art. There is a very good album of the "Ode" by The English Concert and Trevor Pinnock. 

Organ Concerti: Handel was an organist among his many talents. The audience at his operas and oratorios was often "entertained" during the intermissions between the acts by Handel playing the organ and "directing" the orchestra for one of these concerti. They are mostly lighter, pleasant pieces. There a number of fine recordings. 

If you have two or three hours to devote to some longer works, these are a few that are good introductions to the non-Messiah oratorios: 

Judas Maccabeaus: It is a little shorter than many of Handel's oratorios; it relays much of the narrative from 1 Maccabees. It is more operatic than "Messiah," as are many of Handel's oratorios. In fact one common way to describe many oratorios is as "un-staged operas." The mastery of drama, timing and flow that Handel refined during his years as an opera composer, he carried to the realm of the oratorio. A couple of the choruses may be familiar to you as well—they have become choral chestnuts. 

Israel in Egypt tells the Exodus story (as recounted in the books of Exodus  and Psalms) with emphasis on imaginative depiction of the plagues and quite regal settings of the eventual freedom and thanksgiving of the Israelites. There are numerous good recordings. (Choral singers, soloists and orchestral players love the piece for it creativity and variety: it has movements for double chorus, calls for a large and colorful—for the time period—orchestra, and has some brilliant arias.) 

Saul is a very dramatic, operatic presentation of the conflict between King Saul and his successor, David. Even if you do not have time to listen to the entire oratorio, the first mini- scene (movements 1-5 or 6, depending on how the recording divides things) ending with the chorus "How excellent Thy name, O Lord," is worth listening to. Be cautious of videos: many producers stage the oratorio as if it were an opera, and many do that in very modern ways (one at least presenting David as a bisexual). 

This is merely a small, but glorious, slice of Handel's "immensity, scope, breadth and fertility." There are dozens (really hundreds) of his other works to explore as well. 

As a postscript  I close with the ways to explore these works and their benefits (I do so, because many of us nowadays seem to listen to great music only from CDs or downloaded recordings): 

- A live performance, even if it is rather flawed, is the best means of appreciating these works. Especially in most Baroque music which has so much going on, the sight of violins furiously bowing or the interplay of choral sopranos, altos, tenors and basses tossing a musical theme from section to section serves to heighten and deepen the experience. 

- Videos, though often of poorer recording quality than albums, are beneficial for the same reason as live performances, though of course videographers periodically tend to focus on a section, performer or area, which may be distracting from the musical "whole." 

- Albums usually present the most pristine sound which has the benefits of clarity and undistracted listening experience. 

- If you are a musician, even quite amateur, playing or performing naturally is another excellent way to appreciate his music, even if it is simply to attend a sing-along Messiah or to hum the melody of “Ombra mai fu” while plunking out the chords on the family piano. 


The Fleming Foundation

3 Responses

  1. Charles L says:

    Years ago during a snowstorm I walked to a nearby church to hear a local Soprano sing some Handel. I do not remember the pieces or even how she was accompanied, and I am sure that her technique could not have compared to that of a professional. Yet there was something about the intimacy of the setting that brought a . . . merit? to the performance that no recording could have.

    I also much prefer videos for the reasons you mention, although beware of the depth of Eurotrash. I recently purchased a Blu-ray that featured amazing sound quality and absolute world-class singing. I knew the visual production was going to be garbage so I intended to largely ignore it, but it was so offensive that I could not. I have yet to finish it, but I probably eventually will with the monitor off.

    I hope you write more — but let’s start by agreeing on one spelling of your last name!

  2. David Wihowski says:

    Last name is “Wihowski.” (It is an Ellis Island respelling of a German name that earlier had migrated through German settlements in the Ukraine.) I am still sending these posts to Dr. Fleming in the cross-platform-transatlantic scenario, so there are occasional glitches. Hopefully when he returns to the USA we will be able to iron out some of the wrinkles. I plan on more music posts if TJF and the readers want them.

  3. Raymond Olson says:

    Thank you, Mr. Wihowski! One of the highlights of my nearly 26 years in Chicago (1984-2010) was constituted by frequent performances of Handel operas and oratorios. The first concert I attended in Chicago was Music of the Baroque’s production of Theodora, a late and, I think, superior oratorio. I saw half-a-dozen operas in productions by either Lyric Opera of Chicago or Chicago Opera Theatre. During the last few years before I left Chicago, the stream of Handel productions had slowed to the meagerest trickle.