musica Dei donum

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

[I] Alexander's Feast or the Power of Musick (HWV 75)
Marie Sophie Pollak, soprano; Tobias Hunger, tenor; Krešimir Stražanac, bass
Vox Chor & Vox Orchester
Dir: Lorenzo Ghirlanda
rec: Sept 7 - 11, 2018, Blankenburg, Kloster Michaelstein
deutsche harmonia mundi - 19439775972 (2 CDs) (© 2020) (1.26'35")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover & track-list

[II] Ode for St Cecilia's Day (HWV 76)
Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor
Polish Radio Choir; Dunedin Consort
Dir: John Butt
rec: March 27 - 29 & April 2 - 3, 2018, Cracow, ICE Kraków Congress Centre
Linn Records - CKD 678 (© 2018) (61'15")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto grosso in a minor, op. 6,4 (HWV 322); Ode for St Cecilia's Day (HWV 76)

In the course of history quite a number of compositions have been written in honour of St Cecilia, the patroness of music. According to tradition she 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. This story is hard to prove, and even the very existence of St Cecilia has been questioned. It is also not quite clear for what reason she was associated with music. St Cecilia's Day was celebrated on 22 November. It seems that this was not part of German culture; George Frideric Handel must have become acquainted with this practice only during his stay in Italy. When he arrived in England it was obvious that he was asked to contribute to the annual celebrations as well. One of his most famous predecessors in this was Henry Purcell.

The first piece in honour of St Cecilia he composed, was the Italian cantata Splenda l'alba in oriente (1711/12). He returned to this subject only in the 1730s. He reworked the cantata to Cecilia, volgi un sguardo and composed the two Odes, which are the subject of this review. These Odes were settings of texts from the pen of one poet: John Dryden (1631-1700). They had already been set in the late 17th century: Giovanni Battista Draghi composed A Song for St Cecilia's Day for the celebrations in 1687 and Jeremiah Clarke set Alexander's Feast, or the Power of Music for St Cecilia's Day 1697.

Handel's setting of the latter text was first performed in 1736, and was received with great enthusiasm. The performance 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. It was also arranged by Mozart, at the instigation of Baron van Swieten.

Alexander's Feast, or the Power of Musick is about Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia (356-323 BC), one of the most famous characters in antique history. It describes a banquet held by Alexander and his mistress Thaďs in the captured Persian city of Persepolis, during which the musician Timotheus sings and plays his lyre, arousing various moods in Alexander until he is finally incited to burn the city down in revenge for his dead Greek soldiers. It is scored for three solo voices (soprano, tenor and bass), a four-part choir and an orchestra, comprising two recorders, two oboes, two trumpets, two horns, timpani, strings and basso continuo. The work is divided into two parts, and opens with an overture, which is followed by a sequence of recitatives, accompagnati, arias and choruses. Several arias include choral sections. Considering that Handel often reused material from earlier works in new compositions, it is notable that only four movements are reworkings from pre-existing pieces, such as the operas Orlando and Lotario. On the other hand, for several pieces he turned to music by other composers, such as Giacomo Carissimi and Carl Heinrich Graun.

Handel directed eight further performances of Alexander's Feast between 1737 and 1755. As was his habit in the case of revivals, he made some adaptations. One of them is the aria 'War, he sung, is toil and trouble'. It was originally allocated to the soprano, but in later performances it was always sung by the tenor; that is also the case here. (The track-list is correct here; the libretto in the booklet allocates it to the soprano). A performance by forces which are not native English speakers is not without risk, but as far as I can tell the pronunciation of soloists and choir is rather good, although native speakers might experience it as not entirely idiomatic. The tenor plays a crucial role as he sings most of the recitatives. Tobias Hunger has a very fine voice and an excellent diction; the latter is expecially important in the recitatives, which need to be sung in a speech-like manner. Unfortunately, that is not really the case here. They are often a bit too slow and too strict in time; as a result they are a little artificial and because of that the weak spot in this recording. Hunger is more convincing in his arias, for instance the above-mentioned 'War, he sung, is toil and trouble'. Marie Sophie Pollak has a lovely voice, and does convince here. She is often not entirely free of a little vibrato, but that did not really disturb me. In that respect Kresimir Strazanac is more of a problem. I am not a great lover of his voice and his way of singing. That said, he does very well in 'Revenge, revenge, Timotheus cries' and also in his personification of Bacchus in the first part. The choir sings well; it comprises 21 singers (6/5/5/5) which is probably a bit on the modest size in Handel's oeuvre. However, the choruses come off with enough power, when that is needed. The orchestra plays well, but could have been more energetic now and then. In general, the tempi tend to be a bit too slow.

There are several recordings on the market. This new recording is probably not going to be my first choice; of the versions I know I rate both Peter Neumann (Carus, 2009) and Benjamin Lack (fra bernardo, 2016) higher. However, there is definitely much to enjoy here, and that makes this recording a serious contribution to the Handel discography.

The second work, the Ode for St Cecilia's Day, is a work of smaller proportions. It was first performed in November 1739, this time in Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre. There are only two soloists, a soprano and a tenor. The orchestra is largely the same as in Alexander's Feast, but here we hear a transverse flute instead of recorders, and there are no parts for horns. The work opens with a recitative for tenor, referring to the beginning of the world: "From harmony, from heav'nly harmony this universal frame began", and closes with a chorus which reminds the listener of the Last Judgement: "The dead shall live, the living die, and Music shall untune the sky". The Ode sings the praise of the various instruments: the violin, the flute, the organ and the lyre. These are given obbligato parts in several arias; the lyre is represented by the cello. 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.

There is no lack of recordings of the Ode, but John Butt comes up with something unusual, and that concerns the overture. The last movement is a minuet, but here we get a second one as the B section. Butt, in his liner-notes, explains: "The autograph for the Ode actually provides a 'minore' Minuet before the main one (partially deleted); this is not often performed in connection with performances of the Ode. It is not clear what Handel did in November 1739, but it is certainly possible that the two Minuets were performed together, with the major one repeated, according to common practice". That is what happens here.

The choral parts, in which the singers of the Dunedin Consort are joined by the Polish Radio Choir, come off well, and the orchestra delivers fine performances. However, this work stands or falls with the contributions of the soloists, and in this case it falls, I'm afraid. Ian Bostridge does not often participate in performances of baroque repertoire. In one of Philippe Herreweghe's recordings of Bach's St Matthew Passion, he took the role of the Evangelist. That was not a great success. He does well here in 'The trumpet's loud clangour'; its belligerent character comes off well anyway, also thanks to the contributions of trumpets and timpani. However, his singing is marred by an incessant and pretty wide vibrato. That said, Carolyn Sampson, who does regularly appear in performances of baroque music, does not make a better impression here. In 'The soft complaining flute' she manages to reduce her vibrato a little, and one wonders why she did not do the same elsewhere. Apparently she and John Butt thought that it didn't matter or even was a good thing. They were wrong. Despite the nice moments in this recording, in its entirety it is hard to swallow.

Of the recordings I have heard, I tend to prefer Daniela Dolci (Pan Classics, 2017).

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Marie Sophie Pollak
Carolyn Sampson
Krešimir Stražanac
Dunedin Consort
Vox Orchester

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