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
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
see also review by Robert Hugill