Comparison: Peter Neumann (Carus, 2008)
According to tradition St Cecilia was of aristocratic origin.
At a young age she had been forced to marry someone from another
aristocratic family in Rome. She was a Christian and when her
husband converted to Christianity both died as martyrs around
230. Traditionally she has been associated with music, for which
there is no historical justification. But this association has
led to some fine music written through the ages to celebrate
St Cecilia's Day on 22 November. Handel had already become acquainted
with this practice during his stay in Italy. When he arrived
in England it was obvious that he would be asked to contribute
to the yearly celebrations. One of his most famous predecessors
in this respect had been Henry Purcell.
Handel composed two works around the figure of St Cecilia, both
on texts by the poet John Dryden. The Ode for St Cecilia's
Day dates from 1739 and is a setting of Dryden's poem A
Song for St Cecilia (1687). Three years before that Handel
had set the longer poem Alexander's Feast, or the Power of
Music (1697). It was divided into airs, recitatives and
choruses by Handel's friend Newburgh Hamilton. At the end Hamilton
added a chorus from his own Ode for St Cecilia's Day, The
Power of Music from 1720.
The first performance of Alexander's Feast in 1736 was
a great success. It was attended by a large audience, and several
members of the Royal family were present. Its popularity is
reflected by the fact that it was printed only two years after
the first performance. It is one of Handel's compositions which
was still regularly performed after his death. It also became
known on the Continent. There is evidence of performances in
a German text in Berlin in 1766 and in Weimar in 1780. At the
instigation of Baron van Swieten Mozart arranged both Alexander's
Feast and the Ode for St Cecilia's Day.
In 1739, when Handel performed his Ode for St Cecilia
for the first time, he also performed Alexander's Feast;
the only time he ever did so. Peter Neumann also recorded them
together. Here we only get Alexander's Feast. Because
of its length two discs are needed, but the playing time is
unfortunately short; in particular if this production is sold
at the full price of two discs.
Generally speaking the performance by Ludus Baroque is quite
good. I particularly enjoyed the choruses which show the choir
at its full strength. The delivery is excellent, and the treatment
of dynamics impressive. One of the highlights is the chorus
'The many rend the skies', with a beautiful crescendo on "loud
applause". Equally impressive is the recitative with chorus
'Now strike the golden Lyre again'. It could have had even more
impact if the tempo had been a bit faster. But most tempi are
satisfying, and I am especially happy with the pacing of the
recitatives. Neumann is too slow here, and his recitatives are
also rhythmically too strict. Ed Lyon rightly takes more liberties.
He also sings the arias quite well. It is notable that in this
recording the aria 'War, he sung, is toil and trouble' is given
to the tenor. It was originally set for soprano - and that is
how it is performed in Neumann's recording. In later revivals
under Handel's own direction it was mostly sung by a tenor.
The only criticism in regard to Lyon's performance is that he
sometimes uses a little too much vibrato. The same is true of
the other soloists. Sophie Bevan has a beautiful voice and sings
her part mostly convincingly, but in loud passages her vibrato
is too wide. More dynamic differentiation in coloraturas would
also not have gone amiss. Especially well-done is 'He sung Darius,
great and good'. William Berger gives a fine account of the
aria 'Revenge, Timotheus cries', where he explores his full
dynamic range. Here his vibrato is less obtrusive than in 'Bacchus,
ever fair and young'.
Despite its shortcomings in the recitatives Peter Neumann's
recording remains my favourite. His soprano and bass soloists
are his trump cards. Her unmistakable qualities notwithstanding,
Sophie Bevan can't really compete with Simone Kermes. And William
Berger is good from a dramatic point of view, but stylistically
is no match for Neumann's bass soloist, Konstantin Wolff. Of
the three soloists Ed Lyon is the only one I prefer to Neumann's
(Virgil Hartinger). All the same, lovers of Handel's music shouldn't
miss this recording. It has many fine qualities; I have mentioned
the choir, but the orchestra is of the same high level. Moreover,
this recording includes the chorus 'Your voices tune' which
Hamilton added to Dryden's poem and which Neumann omitted.
The recording is outstanding: it is crisp and clear, and has
great presence. The booklet includes a highly interesting essay
by David Vickers in which he analyses at length the poem by
Dryden and its background.
Johan van Veen