George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Song for St Cecilia’s Day [54:09]
Concerto Grosso in B flat, Op. 6 No. 7 [14:02]
Look Down, Harmonious Saint [11:44]
Mary Bevan (soprano); Ed Lyon (tenor)
Ludus Baroque/Richard Neville-Towle
rec. Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh, 8-10 August 2011
DELPHIAN DCD34110 [79:55]

Ludus Baroque are a once-a-year outfit who come together every August to give two performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Their conductor, Richard Neville-Towle, is director of music at the Canongate Kirk, where they give their performances, and the players and singers are drawn from a range of highly respected bodies such as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Sixteen and the Monteverdi Choir. They’ve built quite a reputation for themselves in the limited confines of Scotland’s capital, but their recent recording of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast for Delphian (I was at the live performance) has helped their name to go semi-global. They follow up that very well received recording with another of Handel’s large-scale Cecilian Odes.
The first thing you notice about the recording is the exquisite quality of the sound. The Delphian engineers have done an outstanding job of capturing the acoustic of Canongate Kirk, placing the listener right in the midst of the sound rather than at some distance in the pews. This brings every aspect of the music alive. Each instrumental detail gleams, particularly the pungent quality of the winds and the lovely lilt of the strings, but there is sufficient sense of ensemble so that each component feels as if it is pulling towards a greater goal. The nature of Dryden’s text means that there are plenty of opportunities for soloists to shine, and shine they do. “The trumpet’s loud clangour” rings out brilliantly, supported by natural timps, the “soft complaining flute” has a slightly pathetic lilt to it, while the “sharp violins” are flexible and agile in conveying “depths of pains and height of passion”. “Jubal’s chorded shell” caused Handel more problems, but the cello playing that accompanies it here is sensitive and warm. The highlight of this whole section is the one celebrating the organ (track 9) which turns into a sublime duet for a gentle chamber organ and the soprano. Mary Bevan sings this, and everything else, with divine purity, touching wonderful heights with her crystal clear voice: a delight to listen to. Ed Lyon’s tenor sounds a little more pale than I have heard him elsewhere, and he doesn’t sound quite within his comfort zone. He manages the coloratura leaps with plenty of skill, but the voice lacks a little colour in his arias. He also sings Look down, harmonious saint with good phrasing and understanding of the words, but here too he seems to lack the final edge of comfort and fullness.
Still, this doesn’t detract too far from a very fine performance, which is crowned by the brief appearances of the chorus, who create an excellent impression when we hear them. They are clean, brisk and open at the beginning, the men intoning beautifully on their bass line, “the diapason closing full in man”, and they summon martial excitement for “the trumpet’s loud clangour”. The whole rises to a superb contrapuntal climax in the final chorus when Dryden invokes the ultimate power of music when, with the sounding of the last trumpet, “Music shall untune the sky”. The orchestra support the vocalists brilliantly throughout, and Neville-Towle shapes the whole enterprise with the skill of someone who knows and understands this music very well indeed. The concerto grosso feels a little slight in comparison with the works around it, but it is beautifully played, and it benefits from the “lived-in” acoustic, giving just enough bloom on the sound while being close enough to provide intimacy.
In many ways this sort of release is exactly what Delphian, a Scottish label, is for. They are taking a local, hugely talented musical enterprise and making it deservedly much more widely known. While Delphian’s releases may be grounded in their local, Scottish context, with such quality releases they are rapidly taking on an international level of significance.
Simon Thompson

A local, hugely talented musical enterprise made deservedly much more widely known.