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George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Ode for St Cecilia's Day (HWV 76)
Dorothee Mields, soprano; Mark Wilde, tenor
Alsfelder Vokalensemble
Concerto Polacco/Wolfgang Helbich
Rec. August 1999, Maria Magdalena Kirche, Templin, Germany. DDD
NAXOS 8.554752 [48:44]


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Celebrations in honour of St Cecilia, patroness of music, have a long tradition. In England in the 17th century the 'Gentlemen Lovers of Musick' organised a celebration on St Cecilia's Day, 22 November, every year. Poets were asked to write texts and composers to set them to music. The text which Handel used for his Ode, 'From harmony, from Heav'nly harmony', was written by John Dryden for St Cecilia's Day in 1687, when it was set to music by Giovanni Battista Draghi (1640? - 1708). Handel's Ode dates from 1739, when it was first performed on St Cecilia's Day in Lincoln's Inn Fields. It was performed together with a previous setting of another text by John Dryden, also for St Cecilia's Day: Alexander's Feast.

The text of the Ode is a mixture of sacred and mythological elements. It starts with a reference to the creation of the world. The chaos has changed into a harmonic order because of the power of music. In the next sections this power is celebrated: "What passion cannot music raise and quell!", the soprano sings in her first aria. Then the diverse musical instruments are characterised: "the trumpet's loud clangour excites us to arms", which is an aria for tenor with trumpet, and which is followed by a march. Then follows a beautiful aria with solo parts for the soprano and the flute: "The soft complaining flute in dying notes discovers the woes of hopeless lovers". The next aria is for tenor with strings only: "Sharp violins proclaim their jealous pangs and desperation". Then in another aria the soprano turns to the organ: "But oh! what art can teach, what human voice can reach the sacred organ's praise?" It starts with a long passage for organ solo with supporting strings. Handel, being such a celebrated organ virtuoso, must have felt special attraction to this text.

The next aria refers to Orpheus and his lyre. In only the second and last recitative of the Ode the attention is turned to the myth of Cecilia: "But bright Cecilia rais'd then wonder high'r, when to her organ, vocal breath was giv'n, an angel heard, and straight appear'd mistaking earth for Heav'n."

Considering the quality of text and music it is rather surprising there are not that many recordings to choose from. From that perspective this disc is most welcome. But I don't think it can fulfil all expectations.

The general level of singing and playing is satisfying. The soprano and the chorus are native German speakers, and that considered their pronunciation isn't bad at all, although one can hear some vowels which are not quite idiomatic.

The main problem is a lack of passion: the performance as a whole is a little subdued and detached. In the orchestral playing I miss the grandeur one associates with Handel, in particular his compositions for special occasions. The sound of the orchestra is a little too thin. I would have liked more dynamic accents, for instance in the march, and the tempi are sometimes a little too slow (in particular the interlude, which follows the overture).

The instrumental solo parts, in particular the trumpet, transverse flute and organ, are played very well by members of the orchestra, who are not mentioned by name.

Dorothee Mields has a lovely voice, although I don't like the slight tremolo, and her diction could be better. (I would like to add, though, that since this recording was made in 1999 she has become a considerably better singer). She is singing her arias well most of the time, especially "The soft complaining flute" and "But oh! what art can teach". I am less impressed by her performance of "What passion cannot music raise" - the passion isn't quite there. The cello solo is alright, but too much down-to-earth.

Mark Wilde is also doing well, but could have made more of the text. A stronger declamation would have given a phrase like "Arise ye more than dead" (the first recitative) more impact, and the performance of both his arias is too soft-edged.

To sum up, this is an enjoyable and sympathetic recording of one of Handel's finest works. If one really wants the whole depth and full quality of this score to be revealed, though, one has to look elsewhere.

Johan van Veen

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

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