The Old Colony Collection
Handel and Haydn Society Chorus, Harry Christophers
Coro COR16145. 69’35
Music by James Kent, Thomas Linley, Charles Avison, Samuel Chapple, Samuel Webbe, Handel Mozart, and Mendelssohn.
The Handel and Haydn Society Chorus of Boston was formed in 1815 and is the oldest still performing arts organisation in the US. It was formed to ‘improve the style of performing sacred music’ and to introduce the music of its titular composers. Interestingly their quest to perform the ‘old and the new’ actually referred to Handel as the former and Haydn as the latter. It was not all education and graft though – in his introductory note, Harry Christophers mentions that ‘inspiring libations to be had and membrers were often seen heading downstairs for a break’ – a practice referred to as ‘tuning’!
During last year’s Bicentennial, some of their early music publications came to light, one being The Old Colony Collection, its crumbling leather binding enclosing a fascinating collection of verse anthems and choruses, many from composers little known today but who were clearly part of the Anglican choral tradition in the turn of the 19th century. In a mixed programme, there are some real gems, one being Samual Webbe’s When winds breathe soft with its convoluted ornament on the word ‘curl’ in ‘The waters curl’ and predictably dramatic word painting on phrases like ‘the ocean shakes’ and ‘Unnumber’d surges lash the foaming coast’.
The Handel and Haydn Society Chorus make a splendid sound, particularly in the more powerful choruses (try Israel in Egypt on track 12 for a real blast). But I do have some concerns about the style of solo singing, not least the alarming degree of unrestrained and uncontrolled vibrato, notably from the principal soprano, but also from of the other solo voices. Their presence in the chorus is very evident. I have no idea whether this style of singing is in line with the original intention to ‘improve the style of performing’, but I do find the constant vocal wobbling difficult to appreciate. It is a shame, because the vibrant voices are otherwise very fine.
There is some excellent organ continuo realisations, and accompaniments on a larger church organ, from Ian Watson, combined with sensitive cello playing by Guy Fishman in the verse anthems.