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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Alexander's Feast or the Power of Musick (HWV 75)

Sophie Bevan, soprano; Ed Lyon, tenor; William Berger, bass
Ludus Baroque
Dir: Richard Neville-Towle

rec: August 26 - 29, 2010, Edinburgh, Canongate Kirk
Delphian Records - DCD 34094 (2 CDs) ( 2010) (1.22'45")

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. When he arrived in England it was obvious that he would be asked to contribute to the yearly celebrations. One of his most famous predecessors in this respect had been Henry Purcell.

Handel composed two works around the figure of St Cecilia, both on texts by the poet John Dryden. The Ode for St Cecilia's Day dates from 1739 and is a setting of Dryden's poem A Song for St Cecilia (1687). Three years before that Handel had set the longer poem Alexander's Feast, or the Power of Music from 1697. It was divided into airs, recitatives and choruses by Handel's friend Newburgh Hamilton. At the end Hamilton added a chorus from his own Ode for St Cecilia's Day, The Power of Music from 1720.

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. 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 on a German text in Berlin in 1766 and in Weimar in 1780. At the instigation of Baron van Swieten Mozart arranged both Alexander's Feast and the Ode for St Cecilia's Day.

In 1739, when Handel performed his Ode for St Cecilia for the first time, he also performed Alexander's Feast, the only time he ever did so. Peter Neumann also recorded them together; here we only get Alexander's Feast. Because of its length two discs are needed, but the playing time is unfortunately short, in particular if this production is sold at the full price of two discs.

Generally speaking the performance by Ludus Baroque is quite good. I particularly enjoyed the choruses which show the choir at its full strength. The delivery is excellent, and the treatment of dynamics impressive. One of the highlights is the chorus 'The many rend the skies', with a beautiful crescendo on "loud applause". Equally impressive is the recitative with chorus 'Now strike the golden Lyre again'. It could have had even more impact if the tempo had been a bit faster. But most tempi are satisfying, and I am especially happy with the pacing of the recitatives. Neumann is too slow here, and his recitatives are also rhythmically too strict. Ed Lyon rightly takes more liberties.

He also sings the arias quite well. It is notable that in this recording the aria 'War, he sung, is toil and trouble' is given to the tenor. It was originally set for soprano, and that is how it is performed in Neumann's recording. In later revivals under Handel's own direction it was mostly sung by a tenor. The only criticism in regard to Lyon's performance is that he sometimes uses a little too much vibrato. The same is true of the other soloists. Sophie Bevan has a beautiful voice and sings her part mostly convincingly, but in particular in loud passages her vibrato is too wide. More dynamic differentiation in coloraturas would also not have been amiss. Especially well-done is 'He sung Darius, great and good'. William Berger gives a fine account of the aria 'Revenge, Timotheus cries', where he can explore his full dynamic range. Here his vibrato is less obtrusive than in 'Bacchus, ever fair and young'.

Despite its shortcomings in the recitatives Peter Neumann's recording remains my favourite. His soprano and bass soloists are his trump cards. Her unmistakable qualities notwithstanding, Sophie Bevan can't really compete with Simone Kermes. And William Berger is good from a dramatic point of view, but stylistically is no match for Neumann's bass soloist, Konstantin Wolff. Of the three soloists Ed Lyon is the only one I prefer to Neumann's (Virgil Hartinger). All the same, lovers of Handel's music shouldn't miss this recording. It has many fine qualities; I have mentioned the choir, but the orchestra is of the same high level. Moreover, this recording includes the chorus 'Your voices tune' which Hamilton added to Dryden's poem and which Neumann omitted.

The recording is outstanding: it is crisp and clear, and has great presence. The booklet includes a highly interesting essay by David Vickers in which he analyses at length the poem by Dryden and its background.

Johan van Veen ( 2011)

Relevant links:

Sophie Bevan
Ed Lyon
Ludus Baroque


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