The Gala Concert at the Göttingen Handel Festival usually comprises a recital of some kind, highlighting one or more vocal soloists. This year, we were regaled with two complete independent works, The Dettingen Te Deum and The Choice of Hercules, for which the focal point was the Christ Church Cathedral Choir from London, under chorus master Stephen Darlington. The Te Deum fits in nicely with this year’s Festival theme of Konflikte (conflicts), exemplified also in the performances of Judas Maccabaeus, Alexander Balus and the opera ArminioThe Choice of Hercules is less obviously part of this series, but, as it is not often performed, it was good to hear it.

Christ Church Cathedral Choir, FestspielOrchester Göttingen and soloists © Alciro Theodoro da Silva
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, FestspielOrchester Göttingen and soloists
© Alciro Theodoro da Silva

This is a somewhat difficult-to-classify work – at HWV 69 it comes numerically and chronologically between oratorios Theodora and Jephtha where it looks distinctly uncomfortable, and could perhaps be best described as an English cantata. The conflict in this case is Hercules’ choice between the allegorical entities of Pleasure and Virtue, with Pleasure getting a boost to her argument from a tenor Attendant. It has been traditionally performed with Alexander’s Feast.

The soloists on this occasion brought the work to life, interacting appropriately, with the triumphant Virtue leading Hercules out during the last chorus. Pleasure was sensuously sung by Fflur Wyn, bringing to bear a pretty but clear and carrying soprano voice, especially attractive in “Turn thee, youth”. Rachel Kelly was a darker-timbred Virtue, but no less attractive for that; it was a pity she had to repeat “my awful voice” since it was no such thing in either of its meanings. She produced nice, clean soprano coloratura in “Go, assert thy heav’nly race” and threw off a thrilling cadenza in “Mount, mount the steep ascent”. Tenor Nathan Halle made the most of his single air with beguiling tone.

It was a pleasure to encounter Diana Moore again at Göttingen, bringing her sumptuous mezzo voice and dramatic skills to the role of Hercules. For the first half of the piece she had only to sit looking god-like, but also responding to the different arguments – obviously, no easy choice. “Yet, can I hear that dulcet lay” was sung beautifully and with evident ambivalence, but in the final decision, “Lead, Goddess, lead the way” she conveyed conviction with gleaming high notes.

Christ Church Cathedral Choir © Alciro Theodoro da Silva
Christ Church Cathedral Choir
© Alciro Theodoro da Silva

The chorus had less to do here than in the succeeding work, but did it well. So too the impeccable accompaniment by the FestspielOrchester Göttingen (FOG) under Laurence Cummings, which enthralled from the opening symphony, then the gentle accompagnato which introduces Pleasure, and so on to the rather subdued final chorus with smooth oboe playing. Horns enhanced “There the brisk sparkling nectar drain”, while the trumpets sparkled in “So shalt thou gain”.

The Dettingen Te Deum was composed earlier, in 1743, to celebrate the English and Austrian victory over France as part of  the Austrian War of Succession. Here, the choir shone in its salient role, and displayed the finesse and discipline for which they are known. The trebles were a delight, particularly a capella in “We therefore pray thee”.

Young bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum (also appearing in the opera Arminio) impressed with his powerful, resonant bass. Three other soloists – alto, tenor, bass – stepped out from the choir, and provided a trio highlight in “Thou sittest at the right hand of God”. The FOG of course was superb. The several trumpet and accompaniments raised the rafters, with David Staff much to fore, especially in “Day by Day”, not to mention the timpanist Rob van der Sterren. The full house gave the whole company a very warm reception indeed.

****1