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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Acis und Galatea (1718, arr. Mendelssohn 1828/29)
Acis – Christoph Prégardien (tenor)
Galatea – Julia Kleiter (soprano)
Damon – Michael Slattery (tenor)
Polyphemus – Wolf Matthias Friedrich (bass)
NDR Choir
FestpielOrchester Göttingen/Nicholas McGegan
rec. 15-17 May 2008, Stadthalle Göttingen.
CARUS 83.420 [72.48]
Experience Classicsonline

If you put this disc on blind and listened to the overture, who would you think the composer was? The bubbling woodwinds and general atmosphere point to Mendelssohn and the earlier 19th century; the overall underlying structure is something older. Then, all of a sudden, you twig; it’s the overture to Handel’s masque Acis and Galatea suitably deranged to fit 19th century sensibilities.
 
Mendelssohn wasn’t the first person to do this. Mozart produced his own version of a number of Handel’s pieces, including Acis and Galatea. These reworkings were done so that the pieces could be performed during Mozart’s day, when Handel’s orchestration with its lack of violas and dependency on a continuo instrument, seemed to have things missing.  Mendelssohn’s version of Acis and Galatea was produced for similar reasons. His version is loosely based on Mozart’s; Mozart had added clarinets, bassoons and horns to the ensemble. Mendelssohn beefs it up even more with flutes, trumpets and timpani. The resulting version was intended for Berlin Sing-Akademie of which the young Mendelssohn was a member.
 
Though Mendelssohn is associated with the Bach revival, he was also involved in re-casting a number of Handel’s works for use in the 19th century thus adding to the general Handel renaissance in 19th century Germany. One of Mendelssohn’s main aims in re-orchestrating the work was to be able to create a more varied orchestral sound which could illustrate, comment on and dramatise the action. Handel’s original masque used solo voices in the choruses, but with the increase in the size of the choral forces it was inevitable that the orchestral accompaniment should increase as well.
 
Mendelssohn followed John Walsh’s original published score of the work, missing out just one number, ‘As when the dove’. A number of other arias had their da capos removed in order to speed up the drama. Mendelssohn added a dramatic passage with drum-roll to depict the death of Acis and included other interludes as the drama seemed to require. The words are sung in a German translation made by Fanny Mendelssohn.
 
This recording, made in 2008, owes its existence to the fortuitous discovery in 2005 of a copyist’s score of Mendelssohn’s Acis and Galatea arrangement. This was bought by the Göttingen Handel Festspiele and the first modern performance of the work resulted in parallel with a new edition and this CD.
 
The cast is quite a strong one. Julia Kleiter makes a delightful Galatea. Christoph Prégardien sings Acis with a strong lyric voice, with just a little edge; this Acis is no wimp. And Michael Slattery contributes a light-voiced Damon. None of these three is ideal when it comes to the passagework. There are moments of smudging from all of them but this is nothing major and all compensate with singing of great charm and musicality. Wolf Matthias Friedrich has a wonderful time as Polyphemus; his account is not quite as comic as that of such classics as Owen Brannigan. But he balances menace with humour and his account of ‘O ruddier than the cherry’ (‘Du röter als die Kirsche’) is one to which I will return.
 
The NDR Choir and FestspielOrchester Göttingen make fine contributions, with the orchestra giving us a convincingly Mendelssohnian sound. Nicholas McGegan directs everything with a light hand. He certainly does not try to make us believe that this is Handel but a hybrid which deserves to be taken on its own terms.
 
The CD booklet has an article illuminating the work’s history along with texts in English and German.
 
This will never be a library version of the work as you will always want to have a recording of one of Handel's original versions. But McGegan and his forces make a convincing and charming case for Mendelssohn’s delightful reworking.
 
Robert Hugill
 

 


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