How’s this for an original way of displaying one’s celebratory Union Flag? Strapped to the top of one’s contrabassoon! Apart from the absence of the National Anthem and horseracing, this concert gave us the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee weekend in a nutshell, encompassing the solemnity and sovereignty of all four of Handel’s Coronation Anthems, the exuberance of the Music for the Royal Fireworks, and the pomp and pageantry of the Water Music.

AAM Choir and Orchestra © AAM / Marco Borggreve
AAM Choir and Orchestra
© AAM / Marco Borggreve

It made an interesting change to hear a multi-work concert featuring a single composer. It could have been different; when the anthems were composed for the coronation of George II at Westminster Abbey in 1727, Handel had only just officially become a British subject, but the king-to-be chose him over the natural candidate, Composer of the Chapel Royal Maurice Greene. Handel’s majestic style of choral writing was ideal, and this evening it was brought to life by the Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music. The orchestra, fittingly on 18th-century instruments, opened the concert with the stately introduction to Zadok the Priest, sensitively building the dynamic into a frenzy of anticipation, then just holding back slightly so as to allow maximum impact for the choir’s explosive entry. With just 21 voices, there could be no passengers and there was no room for error. The balance was immaculate, each note in the seven-part chords crystal clear. In this most famous of the anthems, sung at the moment of the monarch’s anointing with holy oil for George II and at every coronation since, as well as in the other three, the choir were suitably energetic in their diction. Attention to consonants is especially vital when pieces are peppered with words like ‘king’, and when singing about rejoicing, it helps to look as though you’re enjoying yourself – they did!

In the opening section of The King Shall Rejoice the choir were in slight danger of battling it out with the brass, but the luscious phrasing of ‘Exceeding glad shall he be of thy salvation’ got us back on track. The conclusion, a typically Handelian fugue, was poised and controlled, with a clear sense of direction – unlike on the day in 1727, when the Archbishop of Canterbury described the effect as ‘confusion’.

We had our own element of confusion at the final section of the concert. The performers launched into a confident attack on ‘Hallelujah’ from Messiah, only to be met with a ‘shall we stand or not?’ moment on the part of the audience. There was a prolonged shuffling and a thumping of seats tipping up, in addition to murmurings from those who evidently hadn’t encountered this tradition, dating from George II’s awed response to the music. No matter: the artists ploughed on professionally, and as I wallowed in the familiar chords and counterpoint, I realised that my elevated position gave me a better view of the period horns, held away from the body quite unlike their modern counterparts.

Although the artists were clad in conservative concert black, one could imagine curly wigs and breeches in abundance as the orchestra gave us a selection of movements from the Water Music suites. They got off quite lightly with twenty minutes’ worth; on the splendid date of 17/7/1717, George I held a grand water-party on the Thames, when the musicians had to play Mr. Handel’s music over and over again for hours on end, presumably getting tossed about and splashed in the process. The AAM created that unmistakable chamber-orchestra sense of listening to each other, showcasing the warmth of the strings or excitement of brass and drums.

Back to George II, who commissioned Handel to write a martial piece in celebration of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Music for the Royal Fireworks was first performed at a jamboree in Green Park in 1749, which attracted so many people that it caused the worst traffic jam London had ever seen. The pyrotechnics, centred on a specially constructed triumphal arch, didn’t go according to plan due to bad weather, and those fireworks that did actually light went awry, setting the arch aflame. Our performance was explosive but in a good way, with heralding drum-rolls and brass fanfares, but also with contrasting dance rhythms, daintily played with a lightness of touch. The whole programme was life-affirming music that put a smile on your face, but the star of this piece was the contrabassoon, brought on specially and doubling as a 9-foot flagpole to the delight of the whooping audience. Flag-waving also accompanied the enthusiastic applause, to speed Richard Egarr and his musicians on their royal journey the following day. As they set sail in the Jubilee Pageant, they’d bring the Water Music back to its original context on the Thames. Bon voyage!