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.
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
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
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.
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.