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

Simone Kermes, sopranoa; Virgil Hartinger, tenorb; Konstantin Wolff, bassc
Kölner Kammerchor; Collegium Cartusianum
Dir: Peter Neumann

rec: Oct 25 - 27, 2008 (live), Cologne, Trinitatiskirche
Carus - 83.424 (2 CDs) (© 2009) (2.15'34")

Alexander's Feast or the Power of Musick (HWV 75)abc; Ode for St Cecilia's Day (HWV 76)ab

According to tradition St Cecilia was of aristocratic origin, and at a young age had been forced to marry someone from another aristocratic family in Rome. She was a Christian and when her husband converted to Christianity both died as martyrs around 230. Traditionally she has been associated with music, for which there is no historical justification. But this association has led to some fine music written through the ages to celebrate St Cecilia's Day on 22 November. Handel had already become acquainted with this practice during his stay in Italy, and when he arrived in England it was obvious that he was asked to contribute to the yearly celebrations as well. One of his most famous predecessors in this respect had been Henry Purcell.

Handel composed two works for St Cecilia's Day, which have been recorded here together. This goes back to a performance in 1739, when Handel performed his newly composed Ode for St Cecilia's Day together with Alexander's Feast or the Power of Musick, which dates from 1736 and was, despite its subject, not written for St Cecilia's Day. It was the only time Handel performed these two pieces at one night. He may have thought such an undertaking a little too ambitious after all.

The first performance of Alexander's Feast in 1736 was a great success. It was attended by a large audience, and several members of the royal family were present as well. Its popularity is reflected by the fact that it was printed only two years after the first performance. It is one of Handel's compositions which was still regularly performed after his death. It also became known on the continent. There is evidence of performances of Alexander's Feast on a German text in Berlin in 1766 and in Weimar in 1780. And at the instigation of Baron von Swieten Mozart arranged both Alexander's Feast and the Ode for St Cecilia's Day.

In the light of this it is rather curious that relatively few recordings of Alexander's Feast exist. The best-known interpretations are those by Harry Christophers and John Eliot Gardiner, but these are not exactly recent. So from that perspective this new recording is most welcome. It is a live recording but that is hardly noticeable. The audience have behaved impeccably, and the musicians were obviously in good shape as there are no noticeable technical flaws.

Peter Neumann is a reputed Handel interpreter, who has several good recordings of oratorios by Handel to his name. I wasn't really struck by his recording of Joshua, though, so it is interesting to see how he fares in these two works. Some time ago I had already heard this performance in a recording on WDR 3, the German channel which also produced this release. From what I remember it was a pretty good performance, and another listening confirms this.

The orchestra is producing a very nice sound, warm and transparent. I had liked a little more bite now and then, though; sometimes the playing is a little too soft-edged, but that could also be due to the acoustics of the church where this recording has taken place. The obbligato parts are very well executed by members of the orchestra: the recorders in Alexander's Feast (accompagnato 'Thus long ago'), the cello, the trumpets, the transverse flute and the organ in several arias of the Ode.

The choir is also excellent, producing a transparent sound - despite its size of 27 singers - and singing with great agility and fine dynamic control. The choruses belong to the best parts of this production. Fortunately the solo parts are mostly of the same good standard.

Simone Kermes may be best known for her extraverted and dramatic performances of baroque operas, here she shows that she has much more to offer and that she is a very versatile performer. In Alexander's Feast the aria 'He sung Darius great and good' with the embracing accompagnati is marvellously sung, and so is the aria 'With ravish'd ears'. The soprano has also the largest part to sing in the Ode, and here Simone Kermes is equally impressive. Her singing of the sometimes high notes of her part is immaculate, and she also expresses the content of the arias convincingly. Her voice blends very well with the transverse flute in 'The soft complaining flute'.

The other star of the show is the bass Konstantin Wolff who has a strong and powerful voice, and sings with impressive ease. Thanks to his excellent diction and articulation the text is easy to understand. The airs 'Bacchus, ever fair' and in particular 'Revenge, Timotheus cries' are brilliantly sung.
The role of the tenor in Alexander's Feast is mainly limited to recitatives. Virgil Hartinger has a nice and agile voice, but the recitatives are the least satisfying aspect of this recording. That is hardly his fault: the tempi are mostly a bit slow and that is due to the conductor. A more speechlike and rhythmically freer performance had made the recitatives much better. But Hartinger gets the chance to take revenge, as it were, in the Ode. He does so convincingly in the recitative 'From harmony, from heav'nly harmony' and accompagnato 'While nature, underneath a heap' and in the beautiful aria 'The Trumpets loud clangor'. His diction in faster passages is less than perfect, though, and his English pronunciation is a little artificial.

But these are only small reservations to what is on the whole a very fine and satisfying performance. It is really nice that these two great pieces by Handel are now available in a single production in an interpretation of a high standard. The booklet contains good liner notes and the lyrics with a German translation.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Kölner Kammerchor & Collegium Cartusianum

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