George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Acis and Galatea (1743 arr. 1828-29, Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1848)
Jeni Bern (soprano) – Galatea
Benjamin Hulett (tenor) - Acis
Nathan Vale (tenor) - Damon
Brindley Sherratt (bass) – Polyphemus
Christ Church Cathedral Choir
Oxford Philomusica/Stephen Darlington
rec. February 2012, St. Michael’s and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI 6201 [75:36]
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 Passion.
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. Strange.
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 awe.
It’s been a most enjoyable experience to encounter this old friend newly clothed. The whole enterprise has been carried out with considerable accomplishment.
It’s been a most enjoyable experience to encounter this old friend newly clothed.