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George Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Alexander’s Feast HWV 75 (1736) [84:53]
Ode for St Cecilia’s Day HWV 76 (1739) [50:32]
Simone Kermes (soprano); Virgil Hartinger (tenor); Konstantin Wolff (bass);
Kölner Kammerchor; Collegium Cartusianum/Peter Neumann
rec. live, 25-27 October 2008, Trintatiskirche, Köln
text included in English and German
CARUS 83.424 [57:06+78:28]
Experience Classicsonline

These recordings join a series issued by Carus in what promises to be a complete or virtually complete set of Handel’s English choral works. This is an enticing prospect especially as the instalments are being issued in parallel with generally admirable new editions of the printed music. Like its predecessors the present discs have been recorded in Germany and yet another set of performers is employed. Inevitably this has led to some variation in the success of the results although once again the listener can expect to take the use of a reliable edition for granted as well as a thorough understanding of the appropriate period style from the performers. Given that these two works are among the composer’s clear masterpieces from his settings of the English language there is immediately much to be said in favour of these discs. Whilst I do have some reservations about the performances they are certainly never less than acceptable and for much of the time much more than that. As usual with Carus the presentation is a delight, with a helpful introduction by Markus Schwering (in German, English and French), notes on the performers, including the names of members of the choir and orchestra, and the text in the original English and in German.

Both works are based on poems by John Dryden and both are essentially in praise of St Cecilia and the power of music. Handel seized with obvious enthusiasm the many opportunities they present to illustrate the words. “Alexander’s Feast” includes for instance a splendid bass air in praise of Bacchus, a soprano air about war, and a bass air whose middle section depicts a ghostly band of dead Grecian warriors. The Ode has even more obvious cues for music, with its references to “the trumpet’s loud clangour”, “the soft complaining flute” and to “sharp violins” - the last of these relating to articulation rather than pitch. Together they can be counted amongst the composer’s most loveable and succinct works.

I first got to know the Ode in a recording from the early 1960s (?) conducted by Anthony Bernard, with Teresa Stich-Randall and Alexander Young as the soloists. It is many years since I heard it but I suspect that it would still be worth hearing, if only for the rhythmic energy and zest I remember it as having possessed. The present version does occasionally fall down in this respect. In the first chorus, for instance, the chorus’ first words – “From harmony” – are slightly delayed, and although this may seem a small point it significantly reduces the cumulative energy of the movement. The soloists are generally satisfactory, and at times, for instance the soprano’s unaccompanied line at the end of the Ode, much more than that. Indeed the soprano, previously unknown to me, is one of the main assets of the performances. I assume that the apparently close miking of the soloists is an attempt to reduce reverberation from the church, and while the resulting sound is not always convincing I soon adjusted to it.

There are other versions of both works available which in some ways may be regarded as being more satisfactory or which are certainly cast with better known performers. Conductors as different as Bernstein, Britten and Harnoncourt have recorded the Ode but I am not sure that they can be said wholly to eclipse the present version. Indeed the convenience and aptness of the coupling and the quality of the presentation do reinforce the quality of the performances as very good reasons to add this set to your collection.

John Sheppard 




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