Händel: Dixit Dominus ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Chœur du Concert D’Astrée ∙ Emmanuelle Haïm

Chœur du Concert D’Astrée. They are one of the finest Choruses I’ve ever heard. Absolutely splendid. They gave a superb performance.

Hola a todos. There was a concert of works for Chorus and Orchestra by Händel and JS Bach last month (diciembre/December 2017) during the holidays in Frankfurt Deutchland/Germany presented by the consistently superb hr-Sinfonieorchester/Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (one of my favourites) and Chœur du Concert D’Astrée.

The concert featured Dixit Dominus (“The Lord Said”) by Händel and the Magnificat by Johann Sebastian Bach. Because it was the holidays, the last piece they performed was the Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah by Händel. I even enjoyed that because of the way they performed it. I’ve previously written that if I don’t hear Messiah again it will be fine with me having heard that “warhorse” oratorio so many times and having performed it. I have reached my saturation point with Messiah. In the US especially, Messiah is dragged out every holiday season, every December on cue. The sheeple never seem to tire of it. But fortunately, they in Frankfurt chose to be more original and creative in their holiday programming by choosing to perform choral works other than the perfunctory and ubiquitous Messiah. And I was very pleased to see that those attending this concert in Frankfurt did not engage in that silly tradition of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus the way the dumbed-down sheeple do here in the US (and probably in the UK too). Do most who stand for the Hallelujah Chorus have any idea why they’re standing? When the first D Major chord of the Hallelujah Chorus is played by the orchestra, one person (it’s usually a guy in the front row) immediately jumps up like a jack-in-the-box and then the whole room follows this guy like a bunch of sheep. The late choral conductor Robert Shaw of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus said he couldn’t stand that ridiculous tradition. I can’t either. It’s as if the sheeple say, “Well we have to stand now for the Hallelujah Chorus because some king supposedly stood (for some unknown reason) generations ago when this was performed in his presence” according to the story. Who cares what some king did?!

Dixit Dominus is my favourite of the works performed in this concert in Frankfurt. It’s the Latin text of Psalm 110. It’s scored for a five-part Chorus (first and second soprano, alto, tenor and bass), five vocal soloists (SSATB), strings and continuo. The opening chorus is one of my favourite parts. Another favourite part is the choral section that begins at 27.38 in the video, and then the choral fugue section beginning with the soprano section at 28.45 in the video. I’m glad that Händel didn’t resort to ending Dixit Dominus with a Picardy Third. That’s when a piece in a minor key ends with a tonic chord where the third has been raised to make it a major key. Some Anglican parish and cathedral church organists end the last chord of hymns (that are written in a minor key) with a Picardy Third, which I think is tacky.

As for the Bach Magnificat (“My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord”), we performed that when I was a chorister in Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington in the Kennedy Center with a pickup orchestra comprised of members of the National Symphony Orchestra. This work requires a SSATB Chorus, a Baroque orchestra including trumpets, timpani and soloists. The chorus “omnes generationes” has always been my favourite part of this work. You can hear that at 8.12 in the Bach Magnificat video. Also, there’s a beautiful and very relaxing duet between the countertenor and the tenor soloists with the strings and winds accompanying them at approximately 11.30 in the Bach video. For the Bach, you may notice that the winds are sitting in front of the strings, and not in their usual place in front of the brass section. But the winds didn’t perform in the Händel (which I think was the first piece on the programme), so when the wind players joined the orchestra for the Bach, the conductor had them sit where there was room which was in front of the strings near her. Some of the violinists look like they were enjoying watching the wind players, something they don’t usually get to see since the winds are normally sitting in back of them.

Mi amigo/My friend watched this performance with me (at this point we’ve watched it many times). After a few moments he said to me, “Well it’s pretty obvious that these performers are the best of the best, including the Chorus, Orchestra, Soloists and Conductor.” True. The superb 20-voice Chorus, Chœur du Concert D’Astrée, is from Francia/France. They had two countertenors as part of their alto section (the two guys wearing glasses in the back row closest to the soprano section). Chœur du Concert D’Astrée were accompanied by members of the superb hr-Sinfonieorchester/Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra. Being a performance of Baroque works, it wasn’t the usual full orchestra. I heard a little bit of noticeable vibrato in the initial choral entrance from the alto section. It was mainly from the two countertenors and maybe one of the altos. Maybe in that range of their voice, the two countertenors have trouble turning off vibrato? And I heard some slight noticeable vibrato occasionally at other times in the performance from the countertenors and 1-2 tenors, but I didn’t find any of it objectionable. Overall, this Chorus sang with a lovely straight-tone giving them perfect intonation, especially the soprano section.

From what I could tell from watching Chœur du Concert D’Astrée and their choral entrances, they have 8 sopranos (to strengthen the soprano section), 4 altos (including the two countertenors), 4 tenors and 4 basses. All superb choristers with my usual personal favourites being the soprano and tenor sections. These choristers are among the finest choristers anywhere. These are not people “just standing up there and singing” as the average person might erroneously think. No, quite the contrary. These are highly-skilled choristers and in their area of music they are of a comparable skill level to the orchestral musicians. It takes a lot of talent, voice training, ear training, musical training and musicianship to get to a level of this high caliber.

I especially liked the counter-tenor soloist and the bass soloist. At one point, the two women soloists seemed to be trying to outdo each other sort of in an opera sense, and I’m not at all into opera. But overall, I even enjoyed the soloists, and I’m not usually big on soloists. These soloists have lovely voices. At another place in the Händel, when the two female soloists sang with the countertenor, they were very respectful and sensitive to him making sure that they didn’t overpower him, which they could have easily done. All very professional musicians and a pleasure to watch and listen to.

The conductor, Emmanuelle Haïm, prepared the Chorus, I think. From my research, it’s her Chorus from France but the video description credits David Bates as Chorus Director, if the translation was correct. Her conducting style is unique. Most choral conductors/directors don’t have that much experience conducting orchestras — which is usually one of their pet peeves; they would like to have that conducting experience but are rarely given the opportunity — because they prepare their Chorus for the orchestral conductor. Although in her case, from my research she seems to have quite a bit of experience conducting orchestras — including the Berliner Philharmoniker — and she has conducted hr-Sinfonieorchester before in music of Rameau where she conducted from the harpsichord. She also conducted a performance of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. I’m very familiar with that Baroque opera since I had the pleasure of being the harpsichordist in performances of that work at the Conservatory of Music where I trained. I enjoyed that experience very much, it was very positive in part because I had a very good relationship with the conductor for those performances because he was also professor of one of the classes I was taking (Dictation and Ear Training) with him.

Considering their consistently high level of musicianship, this orchestra (hr-Sinfonieorchester) could probably play without a conductor. They are such a superb orchestra and seem to keep many, if not most, of their musicians. I recognise many of them from one performance to another. And we are so very fortunate that they record their performances in such high quality and make them available to the world. As I said earlier, in this performance they used a Baroque-size orchestra so they only used part of their full orchestra, such as one bass player. The leader/concertmaster is the same. Chau.—el barrio rosa

hr-Sinfonieorchester – Frankfurt Radio Symphony
∙ Emőke Baráth, Sopran
∙ Lea Desandre, Sopran
∙ Damien Guillon, Countertenor
∙ Patrick Grahl, Tenor
∙ Victor Sicard, Bass
∙ Chœur du Concert D’Astrée (David Bates, Einstudierung)
∙ Emmanuelle Haïm, Dirigentin



6 comments on “Händel: Dixit Dominus ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Chœur du Concert D’Astrée ∙ Emmanuelle Haïm

  1. D8

    I’ve enjoyed watching all three vids. Hadn’t heard Dixit before….really like that,, that should be done more often instead of Messiah. IMO Messiah’s too long….it just goes on and on and we’ve all heard it a million times. The last chorus of Dixit is pretty showy the way they video recorded it.

  2. Wes in Arlington

    Bravo to all the performers in these videos. Such polished performances.

    pb – I share your feelings about Messiah. Being a student at the University of Maryland years ago, I took to the way the Maryland Chorus sang it – I think you’ll know what I mean by that. Did you ever hear their Messiah? It was so unusual.

    Thx for bringing this concert to your readers attention.

    1. el barrio rosa Post author

      Hola Wes, oh yes, I’m very familiar with the way the University of Maryland Chorus performed Messiah where the Chorus added ornaments (“fillers” and trills) to the choral writing in certain places. It made it so much more interesting and more “Baroque” sounding. I’d never heard it sung that way before, and after hearing it I couldn’t imagine it being done any other way. But unfortunately, to my knowledge they performed it that way only when Dr Traver was conducting (with the Smithsonian Chamber Players accompanying, was it?), and I think the choral-ornamented version died when Dr Traver died. Awhile back I heard a clip of the UMD Concert Choir’s Messiah performance (the Hallelujah Chorus) at the Kennedy Center with the NSO and they were not singing the ornamented version. I suspect they were using the Editions Novello scores. When The Maryland Chorus recorded Messiah on CD with the Cathedral Choral Society I had hoped it was the choral-ornamented version, but sadly it was not and that’s because Doráti was conducting. Apparently Dr Traver could only convince Doráti to add one ornament to the choral writing in the entire oratorio and that was the slow trill in the alto section at the end of the chorus “Surely he hath borne our griefs.” I was very disappointed that it was not the “Traver version” as I call it. Personally, for Messiah, I prefer period performances or the choral-ornamented version. Gracias for mentioning that and for your comment. Chau.

      1. Wes in Arlington

        I wasn’t in the School of Music and not being a musician I didn’t know how to describe their Messiah in words but that sounds right. Glad you got to hear it. It’s a shame that version has died. I really liked it. It wasn’t like all the rest. It made them special. Thx for your response.

  3. UK Reader

    Oh my, these musicians don’t have a flaw. Such great performances. Thank you for posting these.

  4. D8

    Thanks for this. Very interesting reading. Now I have something to look forward to over the weekend. Considering your musical training and background, when you recommend performances I know they’re the best. I always appreciate your music articles because I would not have found these performances on my own. Gracias. 🙂

Fin. The End.