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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1759)
Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, HWV 76 (1739) [44.21]
Concerto for Organ No. 13, HWV 295 (1739) [12.11]
Zadok the Priest, HWV 258 (1727) [4.59]
Julia Gooding (soprano) (Ode)
Jeremy Ovenden (tenor) (Ode)
Francesco Cera (organ) (Concerto)
Coro della Radio Svizzera (Ode, Zadok)
I Barocchisti/Diego Fasolis
rec. 10-13 March 2005 (Ode), 28 April 2008 (Concerto), 1 June 2005 (Zadok) Auditorium RSI, Lugano, Switzerland
ARTS 47739-8 [61.35]
Experience Classicsonline

In 1683 a group called ‘The Musical Society’ held a public concert on 22 November celebrating St. Cecilia. This became an annual celebration until 1703, after which the tradition lapsed. During this time Purcell wrote two odes - for the 1683 and 1684 celebrations. The poet John Dryden produced two poems which were set to music, for the 1687 and 1697 events. The first was A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, set to music by Draghi and the second was Alexander’s Feast, set to music by Jeremiah Clarke.
 
By the time Handel arrived in London these St. Cecilia celebrations had lapsed. However for a reason unknown, in 1711 he wrote an Italian cantata Splenda l’alba in oriente which seems to have made reference to St. Cecilia. Then in 1736 he set Dryden’s ode Alexander’s Feast which he performed as part of his concert series, where his English language works were by now well established. The first performance of Alexander’s Feast was padded out with concertos and an Italian cantata devoted to St. Cecilia. The performance of the ode was very successful and it was published in full score; which probably indicates that Handel had no intention of performing it again.
 
The following seasons Handel devoted to Italian opera then in 1739 he revived Alexander’s Feast as part of a season of oratorios. For its 1739 outing Alexander’s Feast was paired with a setting of Dryden’s shorter St. Cecilia Ode. The soloists were La Francesina, soprano Elisabeth du Parc, who sang much of Handel’s oratorios and John Beard, the distinguished tenor whose career was intimately linked to Handel’s performances and for whom Handel wrote the title role in Samson.
 
Though the concert was repeated, Handel never again paired the two Cecilian odes. Probably the combination was just too much for people to take. Instead he revived the Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day in tandem with other works.
 
The opening and closing phrases of Dryden’s Ode deal with the birth and death of the universe. Those in the middle praise the various musical instruments. With its references to the ‘tuneful voice of God’, the text places St. Cecilia in a distinctly subservient role. The all-encompassing subject matter proved a suitable challenge for Handel’s talent.
 
This new recording comes from the Swiss group, I Barocchisti, under their conductor Diego Fasolis. As soon as disc opens we are treated to a crisp and lively account of Handel’s fine overture - he was so pleased with it, he turned it into a Concerto Grosso. The group’s performance is vivid and lively without ever sounding rushed, you want to hear what comes next.
 
Unfortunately what comes next is not quite on the same level as the overture, despite some sterling support from the instrumental ensemble. Soprano Julia Gooding must have been having something of an off day as her usually limpid tones sound strained, particularly at the top of the voice. This is music which needs to sound relaxed and effortless - and here it simply doesn’t. The tenor soloist, Jeremy Ovenden, is in slightly more reliable form but his tone tends to be rather sharp and pinched. His performance is satisfactory, but certainly is not redolent of one of the greatest tenors of the age, as John Beard was.
 
The Coro della Radio Svizzera acquit themselves admirably, especially as they are singing in English. Granted though that their English sounds rather occluded and their diction is rather muffled. As is often the case with foreign choirs they simply do not make enough of the words. After all this is England’s finest (adopted) composer setting one of England’s greatest poets. Surely the intention would be that the words were comprehensible. This is a performance which does not quite live up to its opening promise.
 
The Ode is accompanied by a Handel’s organ concerto: No. 13 HWV 295, ‘The Cuckoo and the Nightingale’ and the Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest.
 
For the organ concerto the soloist is Francesco Cera who seems to be a member of I Barocchisti. No mention is made of the type of organ which he is playing, but it sounds to be quite a small scale one. This performance is attractive and lively but I would have liked the organ to be slightly more spot-lit, perhaps even a little louder. As it was, there were passages where Cera could almost have been playing a rather lively continuo part. Perhaps it all comes down to bravura, something which Cera’s discreet playing lacks and which Handel’s playing certainly had in spades.
 
Zadok the Priest is a sure-fire hit and proves a fine conclusion to the disc. The Coro della Radio Svizzera prove to be entirely at ease with Handel’s style and sing with attractive firmness of tone, clarity of line and crisp rhythm. My only complaint is that their opening entry sounded rather too loud compared to the orchestra.
 
The CD contains a booklet essay and biographies but no text, which is unfortunate as Dryden’s text is fascinating. You really need it in front of you when listening to the disc, especially when dealing with such lines as ‘Then hot and cold, and moist and dry / In order to their stations leap’.
 
If I was looking for a recommended recording of the St. Cecilia Ode then I would be tempted to suggest Robert King’s version on Hyperion with Carolyn Sampson in radiant form. Appropriately King pairs the ode with the Italian cantata Cecilia, volgi un sguargo which Handel included in the first performance of Alexander’s Feast.
 
It is heartening to see Handel’s English works making their way amongst non-English speaking groups. If this disc does not quite live up to its opening promise, it’s certainly good enough to make me look forward to the group’s next offering.
 
Robert Hugill
 


 


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