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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
An Ode for St Cecilia's Day (HWV 76) [44:23]
Concerto for organ and orchestra No. 13 in F (HWV 295) [12:14]
Zadok the Priest, Coronation Anthem (HWV 258) [4:59]
Julia Gooding (soprano: Ode), Jeremy Ovenden (tenor: Ode), Francesco Cera (organ)
Coro della Radio Svizzeria, I Barocchisti/Diego Fasolis
rec. March 2005 (Ode), June 2005 (Zadok),April 2008 (concerto),Auditorium RSI, Lugano, Switzerland. DDD
ARTS 47739-8 [61:35]
Experience Classicsonline

When Handel arrived in London the veneration of Cecilia as patron saint of music was by no means a new phenomenon to him. In Rome the 'Congregazione dei Musici' had laid claim to the protection of Cecilia. And every year a mass or vesper with music by members of the academy was performed in her honour. By contrast, in England the celebration of St Cecilia was not a liturgical affair, despite the fact that every year on St Cecilia's Day a service was held.
 
The annual celebration of St Cecilia's Day had a long history. It had been a private affair until the end of the 17th century. In 1683 'The Musical Society' held a celebration in London which has been repeated every year since with a service and a concert. It was for the concert that composers wrote music to a text poets were invited to deliver. Henry Purcell's settings are among the best known.
 
When Handel was asked to compose music for St Cecilia's Day he used two poems by John Dryden: 'A Song for St Cecilia' and 'Alexander's Feast, or the Power of Music'. The poems date from 1687 and 1697 respectively. They had been set to music before: the former by Giovanni Battista Draghi and the latter by Jeremiah Clarke. Handel's first setting was 'Alexander's Feast' which was performed in 1736. Three years later he set the other poem by Dryden, 'A Song for St Cecilia'. This Ode - as it is called nowadays, after an edition of 1771 - was performed together with 'Alexander's Feast', but apparently that was a little ambitious. Handel performed both works again later on, but never together.
 
The Ode in a number of arias sings the praises of the various instruments, like the violin, the flute, the organ and the lyre. These are embraced by references to the beginning of the world - "From harmony, from heav'nly harmony this universal frame began" - and the Last Judgement: "The dead shall live, the living die, and Music shall untune the sky". In his portrayal of the instruments Handel hooks 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 arias are set for soprano or tenor. Julia Gooding has a nice voice and I have heard some fine singing from her in several recordings. But here I find her rather disappointing. Not only does she use too much vibrato, her voice also sounds stressed, in particular at the top of her part, as if she is barely able to hit the notes. In the aria 'The soft complaining flute' Ms Gooding and the transverse flute fail to achieve a good blend. Jeremy Ovenden is a bit more convincing and generally does pretty well, although he sometimes tends to exaggerate. You can hear this in the aria 'The trumpet's loud clangour'. One of his strengths is his clear diction - admirable for instance in 'Sharp violins proclaim'.
 
Where in the arias - in particular the tenor arias - the text is always clearly audible, that is not always the case in the choral sections, for instance in the closing chorus, 'As from the power of sacred lays'. But allowing for the fact that this is not an English-speaking choir the way the acquit themselves is generally pretty good. In particular the first chorus, 'From harmony, from heav'nly harmony' is well sung; the choir produces a nice warm sound.
 
The orchestra's performances are probably the best part of this recording. The ensemble is good, and the obbligato parts are also well executed. It is the direction of Diego Fasolis which is responsible for the instrumental parts at times failing to convince. The overture, for instance, is too light-weight and should be more powerful, whereas the march is rhythmically too flat. The crescendi on almost every single note in 'Orpheus could lead the savage race' are very strange. I fail to see the reasons for this.
 
Since the Ode is a bit short other works are needed to fill the space. It seems the pieces on this disc have been put together at random, as there is no connection whatsoever between them. All the works were recorded at different times, and the members of the orchestra vary from one piece to the other. What we get here in addition to the Ode is probably just what Italian-Swiss radio had on its shelf.
 
Both works are among Handel's most popular. The organ concerto is nicknamed 'Cuckoo and Nightingale', after the imitation of these birds in the second movement. Although the performance is alright there is nothing to get excited about, and the imitation of the cuckoo and the nightingale could have been more natural and a bit more subtle. The performance of 'Zadok the Priest' is no more than mediocre: the choir's singing lacks clarity and the orchestra is a bit lacklustre. It is Fasolis who fails to explore the expressive power of the piece. In the instrumental introduction he fails to build the tension which breaks into the choral eruption 'Zadok the Priest'.
 
I can't see any reason to welcome this disc, in particular since all pieces recorded here are easily available in better performances elsewhere.
 
Johan van Veen

see also review by Robert Hugill

 

 


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