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"To Saint Cecilia"

Lucy Crowe, sopranoa; Nathalie Stutzmann, contraltob; David Bates, altoc; Anders J. Dahlind, Richard Crofte, tenor; Neil Baker, baritonef; Luca Tittoto, bassg
Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre - Grenoble; Les Musiciens du Louvre - Grenoble
Dir: Marc Minkowski

rec: Jan 2009, Grenoble, MC2
Nave - V 5183 (2 CDs) ( 2009) (2.32'50")

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Ode for St Cecilia's Day (HWV 76)ae; Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809): Missa Cellensis in C 'Missa Sanctae Caeciliae' (H XXII,5; early version)abeg; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Hail, bright Cecilia, Ode for St Cecilia's Day (Z 328)acdefg

In the 17th and 18th centuries the veneration of St Cecilia as patron of music was widespread in Europe, and especially in England. When Handel arrived in London, the celebration of St Cecilia's Day had already a long history. Until the end of the 17th century it was a private affair, but from 1683 on The Musical Society held a celebration in London which was repeated every year with a service and a concert. It was for such concerts that composers were writing music to a text poets were asked to deliver. John Dryden was one of the most famous poets of his time, and his poems A Song for St Cecilia and Alexander's Feast, or the Power of Music were set by Giovanni Battista Draghi and Jeremiah Clarke respectively.

Handel was also asked to set these poems to music. Handel first wrote Alexander's Feast, or the Power of Music, which was performed in 1736. A Song for St Cecilia was composed three years later. This piece is now generally known as the Ode for St Cecilia's Day, after an edition of 1771. It is very likely Handel knew Purcell's compositions for St Cecilia's Day. Purcell composed four such pieces, the latest of which dates from 1692, and begins with the words "Hail! Bright Cecilia, Hail!" The text was written by Nicholas Brady (1659 - 1726) and is strongly influenced by Dryden's poem.

It is not unlogical to perform these two pieces by Purcell and Handel in one programme. The addition of the St Cecilia Mass by Haydn is far less logical. In his notes in the booklet Marc Minkowski refers to the fact that all three composers were celebrated in 2009, the year the recording took place. And whereas Purcell was English-born, Handel and Haydn were immigrants but were both held in high esteem in England.

That in itself is hardly an argument to perform the mass by Haydn, because it was composed well before Haydn set foot on English soil, and it wasn't performed in England during hiss stay there. It even wasn't written for St Cecilia's Day: the original title is Missa Cellensis in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariae - in honour of the Blessed Virgin as worshipped at the shrine of Celle or Mariazell, a small town in Austria, and dates from 1766. The reference to St Cecilia probably derives from a performance which was organised by the Brotherhood of St Cecilia in Vienna at St Cecilia's Day.

According to Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon this mass exists in two different versions, and the version which is usually performed today - the longest mass ever written by Haydn and lasting about 75 minutes - dates from 1773. It seems that Haydn originally wrote this mass in the form of a missa brevis with only a Kyrie and a Gloria. That is the version we get here, and even in this form it takes more than 45 minutes.

Performing these three works of different periods within one recording - and this programme has also been performed live - means that there isn't that much room for differentiation. The pitch is a=415 Hz which is probably plausible for Purcell and Handel, but is it for Haydn? A choir of 30 singers could probably be suitable in Haydn, but definitely is not in Purcell and Handel. It has a negative effect on the performances at large: the tutti episodes are too massive, there is a lack of transparency, and often the text is hardly understandable.

In Purcell's Ode the alto parts are divided among the male alto David Bates and the high tenor Anders J. Dahlin. They sing well, in particular the latter, whereas Richard Croft is less convincing, and so is Luca Tittoto, who tends to be a bit pathetic and whose voice doesn't blend well with the tenors. The star in Purcell's Ode - as in the other works on these discs - is the soprano Lucy Crowe, who gives a wonderful performance of 'Thou tun'st this world'.

She also sings the soprano solos in Handel's Ode, and she does so brilliantly. 'What passion cannot music raise' is excellently sung, and it is just a shame the tempo is so ridiculously slow - the whole aria takes more than 10 minutes. Even better is 'The soft complaining flute', which is performed with great subtlety by Ms Crowe and Florian Cousin on the transverse flute. I would have preferred Anders Dahlin singing the tenor solos instead of Richard Croft, who is too operatic, in the 19th-century sense of the word. Because of this and the tutti sections I don't consider this the ideal performance of Handel's Ode, despite Ms Crowe's contributions which are top of the bill.

In Purcell and Handel the orchestra isn't always at its best. The playing is sometimes surprisingly flat in regard to dynamics, and the rhythmic pulse is not always fully exposed. Les Musiciens du Louvre are more energetic in Haydn's mass. Here the size of the choir is less of a problem, probably because in Haydn's masses the orchestra plays such a dominant role. Richard Croft is again too operatic in 'Christe eleison', whereas Lucy Crowe is again outstanding in 'Laudamus te' and 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus'. Nathalie Stutzmann can be very moving, but often she starts to wobble, and that makes her performances less pleasant to listen to, as is the case in 'Qui tollis peccata mundi'. The disc ends with two movements from the Credo (from the version of 1773) as encores: 'Et incarnatus est' and 'Et resurrexit'.

To sum up: the performances of some of the soloists, especially Lucy Crowe, are highly enjoyable, but as a whole these performances are not really convincing.

Johan van Veen ( 2010)

Relevant links:

Les Musiciens du Louvre - Grenoble


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