Handel’s Dixit Dominus: a paradox of beauty and fury

GF Handel.

Handel’s Dixit Dominus is a curious testament to GF Handel’s time in Italy. A setting of Psalm 109, it is on the one hand a deeply spiritual statement. Handel’s contrapuntal inventiveness and his flexible, often soaring writing for chorus and vocal soloists, do more than state Christian beliefs, they embody a deep spirituality. On the other hand, the text — angry, vengeful, furious — seldom matches the spirit of Handel’s music. There is plenty of mention of enemies (“your foes I will put beneath your feet”); power (“rule in the midst of all your foes”); violence (“he shall crush the heads in the land of many”); and of course judgment (“he shall judge among the nations…”) This is the paradox of the Dixit Dominus and it is also exactly why I am moved by the piece every time I hear it.

Last weekend Karen Thomas and Seattle Pro Musica brought not just Handel’s Dixit Dominus, but also his Chandos Anthem No. 8 and Utrecht Jubilate Deo to St. James Cathedral. The performance served double duty. It was both Pro Musica’s spring concert and part of the ongoing American Handel Festival in Seattle.  Not surprisingly, all three pieces came across splendidly in the warm sound world of St. James.

Pro Musica often performs in St. James. It is simply one of the best acoustic spaces in Seattle. The cathedral’s bona fides for choral performance and resonance are among the best in Seattle. Sing the Dixit Dominus anywhere else and the piece would have sounded acceptable, not special. Sing the piece in St. James like Pro Musica did, and the performance transformed into a singular experience not likely to be repeated anytime soon.

What I liked about the St. James acoustic might have turned off early music purists who demand articulation. In St. James, a level of warmth was achieved from the choral ensemble that I haven’t heard in some time. What was lacking were the finer details — separation of parts, defined textures. The final Gloria Patri with its fugue and flood of ‘amens’ saturated the hall with opulent sound. Karen Thomas knows St. James well and surely knew this is how the piece would be heard. Thomas’s decisions worked for me; I appreciated the amalgamated beauty that resulted.

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