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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Ode for St Cecilia's Day

Julia Gooding, sopranob; Jeremy Ovenden, tenorb; Francesco Cera, organa
Coro della Radio Svizzeriabc; I Barocchisti
Dir: Diego Fasolis

rec: March 10 - 13, 2005b, June 1, 2005c, April 28, 2008a, Lugano, Auditorium RSI
Arts - 47739-8 ( 2008) (61'35")

Concerto for organ and orchestra in F (HWV 295)a; Ode for St Cecilia's Day (HWV 76)b; Zadok the Priest (HWV 258)c

When Handel arrived in London the veneration of Cecilia as patron saint of music wasn't a new phenomenon to him. In Rome the Congregazione dei Musici had posed itself under the protection of Cecilia. And every year a mass or vesper with music by members of the academy was performed in her honour. But unlike in Italy in England the celebration of St Cecilia was not a liturgical affair, despite the fact that every year on St Cecilia's Day a service was held.

The annual celebration of St Cecilia's Day had a long history, but had been a private affair until the end of the 17th century. In 1683 The Musical Society held a celebration in London which was repeated every year since with a service and a concert. It was for the concert that composers wrote music to a text poets were invited to deliver. Henry Purcell's settings are among the best-known.

When Handel was asked to compose works for St Cecilia's Day he used two poems by John Dryden: A Song for St Cecilia and Alexander's Feast, or the Power of Music. The poems date from 1687 and 1697 respectively. They had been set to music before: the former by Giovanni Battista Draghi and the latter by Jeremiah Clarke. Handel's first setting was Alexander's Feast which was performed in 1736. Three years later he set the other poem by Dryden, A Song for St Cecilia. This Ode - as it is called nowadays, after an edition of 1771 - was performed together with Alexander's Feast, but apparently that was a little ambitious. Handel performed both works again later on, but never together.

The Ode sings the praise of the various instruments, like the violin, the flute, the organ and the lyre, in a number of arias. These are embraced by references to the beginning of the world - "From harmony, from heav'nly harmony this universal frame began" - and the Last Judgement: "The dead shall live, the living die, and Music shall untune the sky". In his portrayal of the instruments Handel links up with tradition. The trumpet is associated with war: "The trumpet's loud clangour excites us to arms". This tenor aria is appropriately followed by a march. The flute was often connected to love: "The soft complaining flute in dying notes discovers the woes of hopeless lovers". Dryden was probably thinking of the recorder, but Handel wrote a part for the transverse flute.

The arias are set for soprano or tenor. Julia Gooding has a nice voice and I have heard some fine singing from her in several recordings. But here I find her rather disappointing. Not only does she use too much vibrato, but her voice also sounds stressed, in particular at the top of her part, as if she is barely able to hit the notes. In the aria 'The soft complaining flute' Ms Gooding and the transverse flute don't blend particularly well.

Jeremy Ovenden is a bit more convincing and generally does pretty well, although he sometimes tends to exaggerate, like in the aria 'The trumpet's loud clangour'. One of his strengths is his clear diction, admirably for instance in 'Sharp violins proclaim'. As a result the text is clearly audible.

That is not always the case in the choral sections, for instance in the closing chorus, 'As from the power of sacred lays'. But considering this is not an English-speaking choir their performances are generally pretty good. In particular the first chorus, 'From harmony, from heav'nly harmony' is well sung; the choir produces a nice warm sound.

The orchestra's performances are probably the best part of this recording. The obbligato parts are also well executed. It is Diego Fasolis' direction which is failing to convince sometimes. The overture, for instance, is too light-weight and should be more powerful, whereas the march is rhythmically too flat. Very strange are the crescendi on almost every single note in 'Orpheus could lead the savage race'. I fail to see the reasons for this.

Since the Ode is a bit short other works are needed to fill the space. It seems the pieces on this disc have been put together at random: not only were all works recorded at different times, but also the members of the orchestra vary from one piece to the other. What we get here in addition to the Ode is probably just what Italian-Swiss radio had on its shelf.

Both works belong to Handel's most popular. The Concerto for organ and orchestra in F is nicknamed 'Cuckoo and Nightingale', after the imitation of these birds in the second movement. Although the performance is alright there is nothing to get excited about, and the imitation of the cuckoo and the nightingale could have been more natural and a bit more subtle. The performance of the Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest is not more than mediocre: the choir's singing lacks clarity and the orchestra lacks power. But it is Fasolis again who doesn't explore the expressive power of this piece. In the instrumental introduction he fails to build up the tension which breaks into the choral eruption 'Zadok the Priest'.

I can't see any reason to recommend this disc, in particular since all pieces recorded here are easily available in better performances

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

Relevant links:

Coro della Radio Svizzeria & I Barocchisti
Francesco Cera

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