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

Andrea Lauren Brown, soprano; Markus Brutscher, tenor; GŁnther Haumer, bass
Wiener Singakademie Kammerchor; Barucco
Dir: Heinz Ferlesch

rec: May 30, 2009 (live), Stiftskirche Melk
ORF - CD 3084 (2 CDs) (© 2009) (1.24'05")

In various places in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries St Cecilia was venerated. As the patron of music she was celebrated at St Cecilia's Day. Several English composers have written music to be performed as part of these celebrations, among them Henry Purcell. When Handel arrived in England he was also invited to compose music for St Cecilia's Day. The result are two works of which the Ode for St Cecilia's Day is the most famous. In comparison Alexander's Feast or the Power of Musick is far less often performed and recorded. At the first performance in 1736 - not on St Cecilia's Day - it was a great success. After Handel's death it remained quite popular. Two performances in Germany - on a German text - in 1766 and 1780 are documented. And at the instigation of Baron von Swieten Mozart arranged Alexander's Feast, again on a German text.

Recently I reviewed a recording of the Ode for St Cecilia's Day as well as Alexander's Feast by Peter Neumann. I was generally satisfied with his interpretation. This recording of Alexander's Feast has its merits, but on the whole it is no real competition to Neumann's recording.

The one thing which one immediately notes in this performance is the unbalance between the choir and the orchestra. The former is too large: 13 sopranos, 12 altos, 7 tenors and 11 basses. In comparison the orchestra is too small, with only eight violins, three violas, two cellos and two violones. The size of Peter Neumann's choir and orchestra is more satisfying and leads to a better balance in the choruses. The quality of his ensembles is superior to the choir and orchestra in this recording as well. The Wiener Singakademie is quite good, but lacks transparency and flexibility.

The ensemble Barucco doesn't produce the brilliant and colourful sound of the Collegium Cartusianum. The overture is rather lacklustre, not exactly reflecting the "power of music". Although the orchestral playing improves during the performance, and Barucco delivers some good readings of the instrumental parts of various arias, it is generally too flat.

As far as the soloists are concerned, Andrea Lauren Brown doesn't convince in her first aria, 'With ravish'd eyes', which is damaged by a wide and nervous vibrato. Very odd is the way she breaks up "shake" (the spheres). Fortunately she considerable raises her standard in her later contributions, like the aria 'He sung Darius great and good', with the preceding and following accompagnati. Also good is 'War, he sung, is toil and trouble'. Impressive is GŁnter Haumer, who gives a very good reading of 'Bacchus, ever fair and young'. It's just a shame he is a bit let down by the orchestra. The aria in the second part, 'Revenge, Timotheus cries', is also done very well, but here the tempo is too slow. And that brings me to another point of criticism, which it has in common with Peter Neumann's recording: the tempo of the recitatives, which is generally too slow and rhythmically too strict. As the tenor has almost only to sing recitatives Markus Brutscher's contributions suffer from this, making his performance a bit artificial. He sings his two short arias quite well, though.

The pronunciation of the English text is generally satisfying, although Markus Brutscher once sings "fase" instead of "face" and "kindly" instead of "kindle". I assume the pronunciation of the "ch" in "monarch" as in "charm" by American-born Andrea Lauren Brown is a slip of the tongue, even if it is repeated twice.

Although there are certainly things to enjoy in this recording, Peter Neumann is the first choice.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Wiener Singakademie

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