George Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Ode for St Cecilia’s Day HWV 76 [49:34]
Felicity Palmer (soprano); Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor)
Stockholm Bach Choir; Concentus musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. Bremen and Vienna, October 1977 and February 1978. Original English text included
DAS ALTE WERK 2564 68709-5 [49:34]
Dryden’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day was written in 1687 and first set by Draghi, but it is the later setting by Handel which is usually remembered today. The poet offers opportunity after opportunity for the composer to illustrate not just the characteristics of the various instruments (“The trumpet’s loud clangour”, “The soft complaining flute”, “The sacred organ” and so on) but also a wonderful series of images which suggest musical treatment. These range from the heavenly harmony “from which this universal frame began” to Orpheus leading the savage race with his lyre, and finally the Last Trumpet when “the dead shall live, the living die”. These are wonderful lines, and wonderfully set by Handel never missing an opportunity to show the range of his musical imagination in responding to each image. It is surprising that it is not more performed and recorded more often, and I would willingly trade most of the performances and recordings of “Messiah” that I have heard for an equal number of performances and recordings of this Ode.
The present recording is by no means new, and comes as part of a series entitled “Nikolaus Harnoncourt The Best Recordings”. Whether it deserves that title I would not care to say, but it certainly adds up to a more than adequate performance of the piece. That may seem like faint praise and I admit that I did not enjoy it much at the start as the Overture and the first chorus - “From Harmony” - show the conductor at his most fussy, lacking the solidity of approach needed to drive this music on. Things soon improve, however, especially in the series of solos which form the bulk of the piece. Both singers are on top of their form, always reliable, always responsive to the music and with admirably clear diction. The final chorus starts with the unaccompanied soprano soloist alternating with the choir and orchestra in a series of long and powerful phrases. I have got used elsewhere to some rather obvious help being given to the soprano by the engineers to avoid the contest being too unequal. That does not happen here as Felicity Palmer, at that time still a soprano, shows herself to be more than a match for the forces alternating with her. I remember a live performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers at about the same time as this recording in which Felicity Palmer sang the solo lines in the Sonata Sopra Sancta Maria at one end of a cathedral while the orchestra attempted to compete with her from the other end. She won hands down, as she does here, and the disc would be worth having for this moment alone and for the splendid singing of the Stockholm Bach Choir in the main part of this Chorus. All in all this is a performance certainly worthy of the marvellous music on the disc. The recording does not show its age to any material degree and chorus and orchestra are fully up to the standard of the very distinguished soloists.
It is a great pity that Das Alte Werk did not include more Handel on the present disc - there must be plenty of other recordings which could have been chosen from this conductor - as this would have made it more competitive. As it is, this is a performance with solid merits that deserve its return to circulation.