Few moments are as powerful as the delayed choral explosion in Handel’s Zadok the Priest – the most famous of the four coronation anthems the composer wrote for George II and Queen Caroline in 1727 – and the Brandenburg Choir certainly hit its mark, the singers bursting with energy in the opening of this concert which placed the anthems alongside Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.
Paul Dyer and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Brandenburg Choir. Photo © Keith Saunders
A slightly unsettled start and some mild intonation problems meant that the repetitious figures that light the music’s fuse didn’t quite generate the taut sense of expectation they should, but with the chorus delivering crisp entries in “And all the people rejoiced” and “God save the King!”, in a lively reading conducted by the Brandenburg’s Artistic Director Paul Dyer, the musicians nonetheless captured the excitement of this music, which has been a staple of every British coronation since it was written. There were moments in the following anthems when the large orchestral forces infringed on the singers’ clarity – these were smaller forces than the 47-strong Chapel Royal Choir used in Westminster Abbey (though the orchestra was also smaller than Handel’s, which may have numbered up to 160 musicians) – but there were plenty of fine moments, from the vibrant string flurries and popping vocal accents in My Heart is Inditing to the darker sighing motifs at the centre of Let thy Hand be Strengthened. The King Shall Rejoice was full of festivity, with the unaccompanied choral entry on the “Allelujah” confidently rendered and joyous, finishing the concert’s first half on a high.
Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, at the other end of the program, was written for an even larger spectacle, an outdoor event in 1749 celebrating the end of the War of the Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, and premiered by astonishing forces – it was originally advertised as featuring 40 trumpets and 20 French horns, though it appears Handel only ended up using nine of each. The long-anticipated fireworks display fizzled (it was also fraught with accident and injury) and there is no record of how Handel’s music was received, yet this is one of his most enduring works. Here the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra gave a bustling performance, from the opening drumroll to the fulsome brass and wind sound. George II was dead set against including “fiddles”, wanting a military sound, but Handel scored his own version for strings as well, and the interplay between the two sections was a highlight in this performance, as were the trumpets, who blazed a rousing finale.
Emma Black and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Photo © Keith Saunders
Set between the ceremony of the Coronation Anthems and the bluster of the Music for the Royal Fireworks, the real gem in this concert was Handel’s early Oboe Concerto No 3 in G Minor, HWV 287, believed to date from his Hamburg years, before he made it big in London. The Brandenburgs and Dyer, now directing from the harpsichord, were joined by Australian baroque oboist Emma Black, who has a highly successful career in Europe but also makes regular appearances with Australia’s many period instrument ensembles. Black brought a distinctive, fine-grained sound to the opening flourish of the first movement, delivering liquid runs, soulful lyricism and exquisite pianissimos throughout the concerto. While she appeared to be wrestling at times with a condensation issue in one of the fingerholes, she didn’t let it detract from a beautiful, characterful performance. These were much smaller forces on stage, but Black brought a grandeur to the concerto’s fourth movement easily as arresting as that of the Coronation Anthems.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra tours Handel’s Anthems & Fireworks until August 4