In 1828 Felix Mendelssohn was asked by his composition teacher
Carl Friedrich Zelter to produce a re-scored version of Handel’s
Acis and Galatea, as well as the Dettingen Te Deum.
Mendelssohn, then 19, was still a student at university in Berlin
and finished the job very early in the New Year of 1829. According
to his sister Fanny, this was work he needed to produce to secure
Zelter’s agreement for Mendelssohn to revive the St. Matthew
The score was returned to Fanny in 1831 and there appears to
be no record of Acis ever having been performed, though
the Te Deum was. The first known performance was in
fact given in England, in London, by conductor Joseph Barnby
in 1869, since when long neglect has shrouded Mendelssohn’s
work. Mozart’s earlier re-clothing was preferred, Mendelssohn’s
generally being forgotten.
Mendelssohn rescored the work for a typical orchestra of his
own time. He also added trumpets and timpani and wrote a part
for the ‘corno inglese di basso’ — a type of serpent, which
in this recording is replaced by a contrabassoon. The stage
is set, then, for a bulked- out, proto-Beechamised, pseudo-Harty
romanticised curio: just my cup of tea.
In fact, this is a perfectly legitimate look at one composer
reshaping the work of a predecessor in the light of prevailing
aesthetic taste. It’s also great fun. It’s respectful of the
original, adding signs of Mendelssohn’s subtle orchestral palette,
and the work comes up both recognisable and yet subtly translated.
The most radical rewrite is reserved for the overture, and thereafter
one notices the apposite coiling wind writing, the expansion
of the string section — especially noticeable and effective
in support of the duet Happy we — and the sturdily
clever use of added brass in Love sounds th’alarm.
Such details illuminate the score throughout, and so too does
the use of solo cello in Galatea’s lament Must I my Acis
still bemoan to which the chorus’s answer is: no.
All these points would be interesting, even illuminating but
if the performance were dull, there would be less point stressing
them. Fortunately this is a crisp, insightful production, sensitively
directed by Stephen Darlington, well played by the Oxford Philomusica
and sung with incision and, where necessary, drama by Christ
Church Cathedral Choir.
Galatea is Jeni Bern, pure of voice and true of intonation.
Rather saucily she pants softly at 4:25 in her first aria, Hush,
ye pretty warbling choir where she is very audibly being
afflicted with ‘fierce desire’. Clearly she wants Acis in more
than just her sight. However, what’s happened to Jeni Bern’s
consonants in the very first statement of that first aria; she
doesn’t sing ‘pretty warbling choir’ she sings a very Scottish
‘pre-warbling choir’. She sings it perfectly straight after.
There are few things more disastrous in this work than to sport
two identikit tenors for the roles of Acis and Damon, the shepherd.
Thankfully they are well differentiated. Benjamin Hulett is
Acis, and his tone is most attractive whilst there’s more of
an Arcadian fragility about Nathan Vale’s shepherd — a question
of characterisation, not technique, let me hasten to add, as
he’s an excellent musician too. It’s a question, too, of how
much of a sap your Acis is going to be. When Hulett sings Love
in her eyes sits playing he does so with wonder, not lust.
Since Galatea’s eyes are shedding delicious death in an Elizabethan
sense that I think we all understand, one can assume that Hulett
thinks Acis more a love-struck pup. Back in the 1930s and 40s
when they recorded this aria, tenors like Heddle Nash and Walter
Widdop were made of more virile stuff. Polyphemus is Brindley
Sherratt: no posturing or pantomimic stuff — just core tone,
and real character, powerfully rolled consonants and real presence.
The chorus is youthfully incisive, and responds to Darlington’s
doubtless clear instructions adeptly. A case in point: listen
out for the brusque staccati mirroring Polyphemus’s massively
striding arrival, each word punched out and detonated with explosive
It’s been a most enjoyable experience to encounter this old
friend newly clothed. The whole enterprise has been carried
out with considerable accomplishment.
see also review
by John Sheppard (November RECORDING
OF THE MONTH)