The inaugural Oslo International Church Music Festival took place in 2001, with the admirable target of performing as many of Handel’s oratorios in as few years as possible. Now in its 16th year, the Festival goes from strength to strength, attracting early music choirs, orchestras and soloists from all over Europe, and over the course of 10 days in March each year represents the focus of early music in the Norwegian capital. “Church music” is interpreted in its widest sense and in addition to the major evening concerts, the Festival also offers master classes, organ recitals, High Mass and open rehearsals. This being Norway, contemporary music also features strongly, including a commissioned new interpretation of Bach’s St Mark Passion by the German composer Steffan Schleiermacher, and a jazz/folk concert from Gjermund Larsen.

But Handel is at the heart of this Festival, and the opening concert by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (making something of a tradition here since they also opened last summer’s Oslo Chamber Music Festival) consisted of 2 substantial cantatas, starting with Handel’s oratorio-length Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline The Ways of Zion do Mourn, then the Ode to St Cecilia’s Day. Both were rush jobs for Handel and he composed each in under 10 days, some two years apart. Handel had known Queen Caroline since his days as Kapellmeister in Hannover, and subsequently as Princess of Wales and finally Queen, wife of George II.  Hence, with her death in December 1737, Handel lost a long-term friend and patroness. 

Despite being considered one of Handel’s finest works, and thought to be inspiration for Mozart’s Requiem half a century later, the Anthem is performed far less frequently than many of Handel’s other oratorios and indeed was last reviewed by Bachtrack in 2012.  As befits a funeral anthem, it is a contemplative and sorrowful piece, based on the Lamentations of Jeremiah, with 12 choruses each reflecting on a different aspect of the Queen’s character and influence.   

Christian Curnyn was originally programmed as the concert’s director but was replaced by Marcus Creed.  Welcome as it would have been to hear how Curnyn approached these works and, particularly, how he worked with Collegium Vocale Gent, Marcus Creed has worked extensively with the Akademie and is well known for his work with top-notch choral ensembles, so it was a delight to experience his interpretation of these Handel cantatas. He brought quite a brisk pace to the more energetic or powerful chorales, but even the slow, melancholic interludes maintained a real sense of forward momentum and together built a gripping intensity throughout the 40 minute anthem.

Apart from a short and rather sober opening Symphony, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin didn’t have a great deal of prominence in the Funeral Anthem, but instead gave space to the outstanding Collegium Vocale Gent. The 24-strong choir split evenly into the usual 4 sections, sometimes sub-divided into firsts and seconds, but always with split-second timing, incredible balance and immaculate tuning.  Three of the 6 altos were counter-tenors with the result that the sound of the whole section maintained the sense of a cathedral choir, which was especially effective in the Funeral Anthem. The brief solo parts were also sung by sections of the choir though it’s difficult to think that soloists could better what we heard.  As required, the choir moved with ease and fluidity from fast and dramatic to transparent and heavenly, sometimes in the same chorale - the mournful, near-unaccompanied phrase “Their bodies are buried in peace” was sung with spine-tingling intensity, followed by the hopeful, indeed joyful, response “but their name liveth evermore”. It was a stunning performance of virtuosic ensemble singing.

A brief interval brought a change of mood, trumpets, timpani, cello continuo and soloists.  Klara Ek’s bright, rapier-like soprano filled the Cathedral, whether duetting quietly with the flute or soaring above baroque trumpets and full orchestra in the final Grand Chorus.  She was matched dramatically by tenor Thomas Hobbs who made the very most of his "charge, charge!”.  In conclusion, the Ode to St Cecilia’s Day was energetically played, engagingly sung and a welcome and uplifting contribution to a marvellous evening of music-making – but it is the Funeral Anthem (and the Collegium Vocale Gent) that will stay with me.