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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)
Miriam Feuersinger, soprano; Daniel Johannsen, tenor; Matthias Helm, bass
Kammerchor Feldkirch; Concerto Stella Matutina
Dir: Benjamin Lack
rec: Jan 5, 2015 (live), Feldkirch, Montforthaus
fra bernardo - fb 1615566 (2 CDs) (© 2016) (1.26'15")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

[II] Ode for St Cecilia's Day (HWV 76)
Cristina Grifone, soprano; Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor
Musica Fiorita
Dir: Daniela Dolci
rec: Nov 2016, Basel, Adullamkapelle
Pan Classics - PC 10382 (© 2017) (59'41")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
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; 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.

There are some differences of opinion in regard to the year that the celebration of St Cecilia's Day with a specially composed Ode started. Anthony Hicks, in the liner-notes to Robert King's recording of Handel's Ode for St Cecilia's Day (Hyperion, 2004), states that 1683 was the first year such a celebration took place, organised by 'The Musical Society'. The tradition lasted twenty years, which means that when Handel arrived in England such celebrations only took place occasionally. 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 Alexander's Feast 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. At the instigation of Baron van Swieten Mozart arranged both Alexander's Feast and the Ode for St Cecilia's Day.

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 Thaïs 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 bc. The work is divided into two parts, opening with an overture. This is followed by a sequence of recitatives, accompagnati, arias and choruses. Several arias include choral sections. In his liner-notes to the present disc Bernhard Trebuch states that "Handel clearly took great pains in setting Dryden's text. Only four movements have their origins in other Handel works, such as Orlando and Lotario." However, it needs to be said that for several pieces he turned to music by other composers, such as Giacomo Carissimi and Carl Heinrich Graun. Moreover, Trebuch's statement suggests that the practice of borrowing devaluates a composition, but that is not the case. It was common practice before the 19th century, and especially Handel made use of it very frequently.

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. Overall, this is a pretty good performance, especially considering that the performers are native German speakers. As far as I can tell, their pronunciation is quite good. Miriam Feuersinger needs some time to find her way in this work; in the early stages she is a bit insecure in the lower parts of her tessitura, using more vibrato than we are used to hear from her. If this had been a studio recording, her first solos should probably have been recorded again. But after a while she feels much more at home; the aria 'The prince, unable to conceal his pain' is particularly nice. Daniel Johannsen does well, also in regard to text expression. The aria I already mentioned, 'War, he sung', is nicely sung, but the cadenza at the close of the dacapo is a little unimaginative. Matthias Helm's role is limited; he has only two arias. 'Revenge, Timotheus cries' is brilliantly sung, with the right amount of vocal power. The choruses are also quite good. I have not been able to find any information about the size of Handel's choir, but as it seems his choirs were often quite large; a group of nearly 30 singers seems not exaggerated. Concerto Stella Matutina is a fine ensemble, but here I am a little less impressed than in previous recordings. This may also be the effect of the rather dry acoustic. Considering that the first performance took place in Covent Garden Theatre, this is probably close to the original circumstances. However, the miking is a bit too close for comfort.

The second work, the Ode for St Cecilia's Day, is a work of smaller proportions. It was first performed in 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, like 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.

The two soloists are outstanding. Especially Cristina Grifone, who has the largest solo part, delivers wonderful performances. She has a beautiful and pure voice, and deals very well with the sometimes very high notes in her part. Hans Jörg Mammel's performance of the opening recitative is spot on and he is impressive in 'Sharp violins proclaim', with marked dynamic accents. The choruses are also splendidly sung. In the booklet Daniela Dolci explains a few of her decisions, some of which seem debatable. One of these is the use of a relatively small ensemble. The choir comprises only twelve singers, including the two soloists. This results in a maximum transparency, but whether this is in line with the forces Handel had at his disposal is a different matter. That goes even more for the size of the orchestra: four violins and one viola seems rather small. I would have preferred a somewhat larger string body. The use of two real authentic trumpets - played without the use of fingerholes - is historically entirely correct, though, and this recording attests to the growing acceptance of a practice which has been introduced by Jean-François Madeuf, who also participates in this recording. The Ode is preceded by a concerto grosso for strings and bc; here Dolci decided to add oboes and a bassoon, inspired by a performance practice in Corelli's concerti grossi in Rome. This is another debatable issue; I would like to see evidence that this was also part of the performance practice in England. In the first performance Handel included one of his organ concertos. It is a shame that this practice was not followed here. A lack of space can't have been the reason to omit it.

Depite some minor issues, this is definitely one of the best recordings of the Ode for St Cecilia's Day.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Miriam Feuersinger
Cristina Grifone
Matthias Helm
Daniel Johannsen
Hans Jörg Mammel
Kammerchor Feldkirch
Concerto Stella Matutina
Musica Fiorita

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