After a highly-acclaimed performance of sacred choral music in the Michaelmas term, the Dunelm Consort returned this February alongside the Dunelm Players for a performance of some of Handel’s most famous commissions under the patronage of the English monarch. The Great Hall of Durham Castle (once the home of the prince-bishops of Durham) was a fitting setting for this courtly music.
The first half of this concert was devoted to the Dunelm Players, who performed the overture from Jephta and the five movements of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. This overture opens with a controlled low dynamic that is not tentative or devoid of energy. There are some masterful oboe passages and the unisons with the violin section are very impressive. Particularly worthy of note are the highly polished orchestral glissandos in the ritornello sections.
Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks opens with a rousing Ouverture followed by a bourée that, although somewhat rushed in places, retained a sense of stateliness. The double-bassist Jenni Williamson provided a perfectly articulated support to the orchestra. The next two movements feature some brilliant direction from Jonathan Allsopp, who makes the ritornellos of the fourth movement in particular grow in each repetition. There is some brilliant brass in the final Menuet, with very crisp chords particularly in the horn section.
Following the interval, the Dunelm Consort came to join their instrumental counterpart for a performance of Handel’s Four Coronation Anthems. Highlights here included a fine rendition of the first (and most famous) anthem, Zadok the Priest. The oboes and violins are again very fine in their imitative runs before the tutti ‘God save the king’ entry. Similar mastery is shown on the ‘amen’ runs. In the next anthem, ‘Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened’, Allsopp directs some particularly expressive hairpin dynamics, and in the absence of the trumpets and drums, the more limited orchestral forces here are able to complement the vocal parts and achieve a great expressiveness. The powerful suspensions of the final cadence are clear and brilliant.
The opening tenor entry of ‘The King Shall Rejoice’ begins several imitative entries, and after the introduction the choral parts space out to form lovely block chords that show off the richness of the ensemble’s sound. Each section brings something different in this anthem, with the very grand block chords of ‘a Crown of Pure Gold Upon his Head’ particularly impressive in this large space. Although there is some loss of energy in the final Alleluia, the varying complex textures and vocal writing of these anthems shows off the ensemble’s vocal prowess.
‘My Heart is Inditing’ was the final of Handel’s anthems, and was a demonstration, among other things, of the mastery of the individual instrumental sections. Hand-picked from the student population alongside other local professionals, the Dunelm Players showed some amazingly vibrant weaving melodies, particularly well carried in the oboes. In this anthem, the brass somewhat overpowered the ensemble, but had a bright, regal tone even on the harder material which shone well in space of the great hall. The final chorus really hammered home the grandeur of Handel’s coronation music, with excellently carried polyphonic entries and an excellent sense of excitement vocally without any sense of rushing. In this final anthem in particular, the pitching and accuracy of rhythms was sublime from all players and singers.
The audience were left visibly exalted by the end of the final chord, and having now demonstrated their prowess complete with their instrumental contingent, the Dunelm Consort and Players can be expected to show equal professionalism and charisma in their performance of J.S. Bach’s St John Passion in March. Featuring guest soloists Ruairi Bowen and Gareth Thomas.