Harry Christophers / Handel & Haydn Society

The Old Colony Collection

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The installation of The Sixteen conductor Harry Christophers as artistic director of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society has had happy results, never more so than on this collection that unearths all-but-unknown music perfectly suited to the choir's style. Histories of American music will tell you about the conflict between the proper hymn style of Lowell Mason and the rougher homegrown polyphony of William Billings and his compatriots, but this ignores the fact that well into the 19th century a large majority of choral music performed in America would have come from England. Presented here are selections from a choral music publication called The Old Colony Collection, issued by the Old Colony Music Society of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Just as it has here, the Handel and Haydn Society was interested in this publication and in 1815 purchased copies of it for use in performances. The music anthologized is all from England and includes three types: religious verse anthems, secular counterparts to these called glees (from which the term "glee club" is derived) that are, as the felicitous booklet notes put it, "not overly challenging or overly simple," and adaptations of oratorio and operatic selections. The last of these brings in works by both Handel and Haydn, but it's the original music that's most interesting. With the possible exception of Charles Avison, the composers have all been completely forgotten, but in the early 19th century they would have been familiar to both English and American listeners. They're charming, with sensitive text-setting knitted together into simple ternary or verse structures. The small choir, accompanied by cello and organ, is perfectly suited, and Christophers coaxes sensitivity to the vocal line out of the singers. For a taste, try Samuel Webbe's gentle and not unsubtle When winds breathe soft, with its text by the composer himself (although, you will learn, he claimed that he had found it "on a piece of paper wrapped around some trifling article procured at a chandler's shop"). The music here is guaranteed to please, and it is to be hoped that the recording will lead to the reintroduction of some of this music into the American choral repertory. Idiomatic sound from the Church of the Redeemer in the Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill is the icing on the cake.

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