The ways of Zion do mourn
'Utrecht' Te Deum

Warner Apex 2564 61142-2
1 CD
budget price
Recorded in 1978a / 1984b
Released in 2004.

The ways of Zion do mourn (HWV 264)a
Norma Burrowes (soprano)
Charles Brett (countertenor)
Martyn Hill (tenor)
Stephen Varcoe (bass)
Monteverdi Choir
Monteverdi Orchestra (on modern instruments)
Director: John Eliot Gardiner

ĎUtrechtí Te Deum (HWV 278)b
Felcity Palmer (soprano)
Marjana Lipovsek (alto)
Philip Langridge, Kurt Equiluz, Thomas Moser (tenors)
Ludwig Baumann (bass)
Arnold Schoenberg Choir
Concentus musicus Wien (on period instruments)
Director: Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Since the demise of Teldec and Erato, their parent company Warner has ruthlessly exploited their back catalogue. While this is mainly a cause for lament, it has resulted in some of the lesser-known recordings being reissued. Here we have two of the greatest pioneers of the period instrument revolution turning their attention towards Handelís grandest church music composed for the British Royal Family.

Unfortunately, Nikolaus Harnoncourt has never shown much natural talent as a Handel interpreter despite his status as the Godfather of Early Music. This performance of the ĎUtrechtí Te Deum is strictly for completists only, and features clumsy choral singing, unpleasant solo contributions, and an unmemorable management of the performance that does not reveal much sympathy for the Handelís musical aesthetics. While Harnoncourtís Teldec recordings of Belshazzar, Alexanderís Feast, and Ode to St. Cecilia all have more virtues than vices, this uncomfortable performance sadly has to be filed under Ďtried but failedí category that also blights Harnoncourtís Saul, Samson, Theodora, and Jephtha.

Gardinerís patchy 1970s recordings do not compare with his subsequent landmark performances using period instruments. The ways of Zion do mourn, composed for the funeral of Queen Caroline in 1737, is Handelís most unfairly neglected choral masterpiece. It has suffered from its unwieldy inclusion in Handelís 1738 original version of Israel in Egypt, and is much better heard as an anthem in its own right. Although several recordings of its revised Israel in Egypt version exist, Gardinerís recording remains the most high profile of the original composition after more than 25 years, and I wonder what he would make of the work if he could perform it again.

This 1978 recording shows that this early incarnation of the Monteverdi Choir had its moments. Gardiner was to switch across to period instruments and become an early music apostle within months of this being recorded, and it is surprising that this is essentially a very traditional performance. The orchestra lays it on thick, and speeds are broad and expansive (i.e. mostly too slow). There is perhaps too much subtlety and choral society-isms from the pre-HIP Gardiner, and some of the grander moments sound closer to the 1940s than Gardinerís own work a decade later. The soloists Ė quite apart from the fact that they have no place in this work Ė fulfill their function without being especially memorable. The ways of Zion do mourn is such a fine masterpiece that I enjoyed this performance anyway, but I wonder if Gardiner himself would be happier had Warner kept this one buried in the vault. It certainly deserves a first-class recording by a group comparable to the modern-day Monteverdi Choir, and also needs to be performed entirely chorally without spurious assignations of certain movements to solo quartet. I am glad to have heard this reissue, but eagerly anticipate the anthem getting the attention Ė and the performance - it deserves.

© David Vickers - May 2004

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