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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (1739) [48.08]
Monika Frimmer (soprano)
Eberhard Büchner (tenor)
Mitglieder des Chores des Landestheaters Halle, der Halleschen Chorsolisten und des Collegiums vocale
Handel-Festspielorchester Halle/Christian Kluttig
rec. Paul-Gerhardt Kirche, Leipzig, July 1982.


Experience Classicsonline

Dating from 1739, Handel’s St. Cecilia Ode sets Dryden’s text from 1687. Handel had already set Dryden in Alexander’s Feast three years earlier. The Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day was premiered in 1739 in a concert which also included Alexander’s Feast, this rather gargantuan effort forming a celebration of St. Cecilia’s Day (22 November). It shows Handel responding in his own, distinctive way to a very British tradition. The Society of Music for whom the piece was written had regularly commissioned new St. Cecilia pieces since 1683 and previous composers had included Purcell and Blow.

Handel’s new piece was rather indebted to his own and other composers’ previous works; he borrows both from his Concerto Grossi Op. 6 and from the Viennese composer Theophil Muffat. But these borrowings do not really matter. Handel transforms all the material that he appropriates and the results are almost always new and improved. Far from sounding like a rag-bag of patches, the Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day creates a lively, attractive and coherent impression, with Handel responding well to Dryden’s imagery about the power of music. Unusually for Handel, there is no dramatic plot to the work.

The present recording was made in 1982 and remarkably for its date and recording location, the work is sung in English; it was not that long ago that singing Handel in German was commonplace in Germany.

Soprano soloist, Monika Frimmer, has a very, very clean and girlish quality to her voice; her tone is not quite comparable to Emma Kirkby, but is getting rather that way. She is easily able to float the vocal line in The soft complaining flute. At other times her voice can sound slightly under pressure at the top, though generally her vocal production is noticeable for its freedom. In the accompagnato But bright Cecilia her passagework is admirably clean.

But Frimmer gives every sign of not liking to sing in English and her response seems to have been to ignore the words altogether. There are many passages where it is difficult to make out what she is singing. Tenor Eberhard Büchner makes more effort with the text, but with mixed results. His tone quality is lovely in his opening accompagnato From Harmony but he needed to make far more of the words.

Handel has taken care with his setting of the English text and any performance of this work needs to reflect the importance of Dryden’s words. Neither Frimmer nor Büchner do this adequately. Where Büchner does spit out the words, as in the aria The trumpet’s clangor the result sounds rather effortful. He is not helped by his rather laboured passagework here, even though his tone is suitably brilliant.

In his other aria Sharp violins proclaims Büchner shows some attractive and lively passagework with soloists and orchestra providing a nice bounce to the line. Even so Büchner’s vowels let him down.

The choir sing well but in rather too sustained a manner. They and the orchestra are very creditable but the sound is slightly old-fashioned compared to the sort of performances available in England at this time. As with the soloists, the main drawback with the chorus is the fact that they are not singing in their native tongue. Their diction fails to make sufficient impact.

Handel’s oratorios and odes are all about the combination of words and music. The vocal lines rarely have the virtuoso display present in his Italian works. Instead they rely on the power of the English texts that he set, in the hands of suitably expressive soloists. Some of Handel’s notable interpreters during his oratorio period were singers who lacked first quality voices but who gained audiences through the sheer expressive power of their performances. This is what is lacking here.

Anyone wanting a library version of this piece should try to get hold of Trevor Pinnock’s recording with the English Concert and Felicity Lott and Anthony Rolfe Johnson as soloists or the more recent Kings Consort recording with Carolyn Sampson as soprano soloist.

This disc is probably for completists only or those interested in the history of Handelian performance. If you buy this disc you will get an attractive enough performance; it’s just that you’ll be missing out on the extra special touch that other singers bring to this music.

Robert Hugill



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