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CD Review

Naxos Early Music

George Frideric Handel

  • Dixit Dominus, HMV 232
  • Salve Regina, HMV 241
  • Nisi Dominus, HMV 238
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble
Naxos 8.553208 DDD 54:30
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Elizabethan Songs and Consort Music

  • Songs and Instrumental music by William Byrd, William Mundy, Robert Parsons, Thomas Tallis, John Taverner, Christopher Tye, Richard Farrant, Innocenzio Alberti, Nathaniel Pattrick and John Bennet
Catherine King, mezzo-soprano
Rose Consort of Viols
Naxos 8.554284 DDD 72:47
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Here is a pair of discs that might have appeal to the same tastes, despite the fact the music on them is separated by more than a century. Of course, there is a link: Handel settled in England and probably heard some of the very songs and instrumental works contained on the second disc here. Stylistically, though, I'm not sure there's actually much Handel and this hodgepodge of British predecessors had in common: the former's vivacity and exalted brilliance seem rather at odds with the more personal and often elegiac nature found in the works of the latter group. I suggested a kinship in their potential appeal because all these composers are now typically given the historic-practices treatment and all come from the pre-Classical era, with roots, of one sort or other, in England.

The Handel works here are early ones, all dating from 1707 when the composer was on an extended visit to Italy to study opera, at a time when it was banned in Rome. Dixit Dominus has had a fair amount of recorded attention. In the past decade or so there have been two good versions, Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists (Erato) and the Stockholm Bach Choir (BIS). This Naxos entry is certainly competitive, and when price is factored in, it sweeps the boards. The performance is spirited and convincing in every way: from the brilliant opening Dixit Dominus on to the beautifully rendered Tecum principium, and onto the triumphant closing section, Gloria Patri, this group captures the heart of this youthful, inspired score. I liked the sopranos in particular, Kym Amps and Anna Crooks, and execution by the instrumentalists in this ensemble, comprised mainly of strings, was also most impressive.

The other two works by Handel here are less popular fare, but are still worthwhile, especially in performances this convincing. Again Kym Amps turns in fine work in the Salve Regina, and the tenor, Robin Doveton, and two counter tenors, Angus Davidson and David Gould, are splendid in the Nisi Dominus. Sound and notes are excellent in all three works.

On the other disc there are twenty-four selections, most at least charming in their general melancholy and some quite moving. Of particular interest is O Death, rock me asleep, an anonymous song which Catherine King delivers most touchingly. In fact, she is quite convincing throughout and possesses one of those rare mezzo voices that never turn thick or heavy and always maintain a vocal beauty. The several items by Byrd, Quis me statim, Penelope that longed and Ye sacred Muses are, as one expects from this master, finely crafted works. Without doubt, Byrd was the greatest composer from the ten represented here – and considering that company includes Tallis and Taverner, that's saying a lot. Some of the instrumental pieces here are also of note: William Mundy's Fantasia opens the CD and ushers in a kind of folkish introspection that sets the mood, while the anonymous In nomine and Robert Parsons' De la court brighten things, if only marginally. All in all, this is a most appealing release. Again, Naxos provides splendid sound and fine notes.

Copyright © 2000, Robert Cummings