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 Recording of the Week  Handel Chandos Anthems from Stephen Layton and the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge

Handel’s Chandos Anthems are the happy product of his year-long musical residency at the Edgware home of James Brydges, who had served as Paymaster General during the War of Spanish Succession (he actually only became Duke of Chandos in 1719, a year or so after Handel left his household, but the name stuck!). In comparison with the much better-known Coronation Anthems these tuneful psalm-settings have had surprisingly few outings on disc – Harry Christophers’ complete set with The Sixteen, appropriately on Chandos, is the only other competitor in the current catalogue – but much of the music really is top-drawer Handel, with shades of Messiah and Acis and Galatea popping up here and there (the latter work was in fact also written for Brydges, as was Esther).

Stephen Layton
Stephen Layton

This second volume of Trinity College Cambridge’s survey of the anthems with Stephen Layton (covering Nos. 5, 6 and 8) is a worthy successor to the much-praised first instalment, and to their recent award-winning Britten Ceremony of Carols. Choral tradition at Trinity dates back to the fourteenth century, and they’re now considered one of the finest mixed-voice Oxbridge choirs: female voices were introduced in the 1980s under Richard Marlow, who died only a few weeks ago. The ten undergraduate sopranos here sing with charm, clarity and a bright tone that never strays into faux-treble territory, and their flexibility in this often very florid music is impressive. Three countertenors give a predominantly female alto line some nice bite, and if the young tenors and basses occasionally sound a little less finished than those of Layton’s ‘other choir’, Polyphony, they bring a lovely energy to the writing and their diction and pointing is excellent.

Layton’s collaboration with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment continues to bear fruit: some of you may remember my enthusiasm for their superb St John Passion earlier this year, and the transparent textures and stylish but unfussy phrasing which marked out that recording are once more in evidence. There’s some stand-out solo violin and oboe work in the sonatas which open each work (Kati Debretzeni and Anthony Robson respectively), and balance between choir and band is spot-on throughout: original manuscripts suggest that the anthems were performed with just single or double strings, but numbers have been bumped up a little here to match the forty-strong choir.

Vocal soloists are uniformly splendid. Thomas Hobbs has the lion’s share of the solo duties, and rises to the challenge with consistently beautiful tone and easy agility: the coloratura passagework in ‘Put thy trust in the Lord’, for instance, comes off with understated panache. There’s no strain even in the most exposed quiet passages: much of the writing lies unusually high, and Layton speculates that at least one of these anthems may have been written for a sort of English ‘haute-contre’ (or low countertenor). ‘The Lord preserveth’, from the first anthem on this set, also falls into this grey area, and countertenor Iestyn Davies is called in to do the honours here: despite the low tessitura, he brings to the music all the easy projection and fluid legato which made his arias such a highlight of that recent John Passion.

Susan Gritton’s lyric soprano is a good bit fuller than one usually hears in sacred Handel these days (as Layton suggests, the doubling of much of her music with oboe implies that at least some of it was written for a small, possibly treble voice, whereas Ms Gritton has been making waves in Puccini, Strauss and Britten of late) but the sound is still clean enough to work in this music and her sense of line is spellbinding.

Handel: Chandos Anthems Nos 5a, 6a & 8

Susan Gritton (soprano), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Trinity College Choir Cambridge, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Stephen Layton

Available Format: CD