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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Song for St Cecilia's Day (1739) [54:09]
Concerto Grosso in B flat, Op. 6 No. 7 (1739) [14:02]
Look Down, Harmonious Saint (1736) [11:44]
Mary Bevan (soprano); Ed Lyon (tenor)
Ludus Baroque/Richard Neville-Towle
rec. Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh, 8-10 August 2011
English texts included
DELPHIAN DCD34110 [79:55]

Ludus Baroque is a hand-picked ensemble of singers and instrumentalists, established in 1997, who visit the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh twice each year to perform music by Bach and Handel under the direction of their founder, Richard Neville-Towle. Their 2010 performances of Handel's Alexander's Feast were followed by a recording for Delphian (review) and this disc, I imagine, is the fruit of their 2011 visit to Edinburgh. I haven't heard the recording of Alexander's Feast but I enjoyed these performances very much indeed.
The Song for St Cecilia's Day, which was composed in 1739, sets a 1687 Ode by John Dryden (1631-1700), whose poetry had already furnished the libretto for Alexander's Feast three years earlier. Once again Dryden's imagery was seized upon by Handel as the inspiration for some spectacular music. In particular, Handel composed a stream of superb arias for his two soloists. The tenor's music encompasses a range of moods. Poetry is called for in the opening recitative, 'From harmony, from heaven'ly harmony' and here we find Ed Lyon singing with clarity and expressiveness, even if he doesn't have quite the sweetness of tone that Anthony Rolfe Johnson displayed on Trevor Pinnock's 1985 DG Archiv recording. In a complete change of mood the tenor later has the rousingly martial 'The trumpet's loud clangour'. Lyon is fiery and exciting in this air, singing with genuine energy. Rolfe Johnson is splendid too, turning in a dashing performance but I think Lyon has a slight edge here. Honours are pretty much even in the last tenor contribution, 'Sharp violins proclaim', where Lyons once more displays energy and clarity - and, incidentally, there's no hint of sharpness from Ludus Baroque's violins who, so far as I can detect, remain plumb in tune, as do the players of Pinnock's English Concert.
The tenor has some fine music to sing but the plums go to the soprano soloist. Mary Bevan sings the exquisite 'What passion cannot music raise and quell?' beautifully: I love the warmth of her tone and she's supported by a fine cellist, Chris Suckling. It has to be said that Felicity Lott is ravishing here for Pinnock but Miss Bevan's singing gives great pleasure. Some composers would be content with having turned out one such aria but Handel has more tricks up his sleeve. 'The soft complaining flute' is no less beguiling. Once again, Mary Bevan offers winning singing and her flautist companion, Rachel Moss, plays her part quite delightfully. Then Handel caps his achievements so far with 'But oh! what art can teach?' This is a simply gorgeous example of Handelian art. Richard Neville-Towle, clearly revelling in the music as much as his singer, adopts a daringly expansive tempo - he takes a full minute longer than Pinnock - but Mary Bevan's rapt singing more than justifies the speed. Once again, Felicity Lott is ravishing on the Pinnock version but I was won over just as much by Miss Bevan. Faced with exquisite music such as this and a lovely soprano voice one can only surrender.
The choir has less to do in this work but the singers of Ludus Baroque give an excellent account of themselves. I particularly relished the very solid, though not overdone, foundation that the basses provide in the chorus, 'From harmony, from heaven'ly harmony'. The voices in all four sections of the choir are well blended and the singing is expert. The choir numbers 19 (6/4/4/5), which is slightly less than Pinnock has in his choir. The final chorus, 'As from the pow'r of sacred lays', provides a splendid conclusion as both the choir and the excellent instrumentalists put over the grandeur and exuberance of Handel's music.
The orchestral playing throughout the main work is very good indeed. The strings then have an opportunity to shine by themselves in a very pleasing reading of the Concerto Grosso in B flat. Handel composed this set of concertos within a matter of weeks immediately after he'd completed Song for St Cecilia's Day so this concerto grosso is an apt companion. To complete a generous programme Ed Lyon sings the solo cantata Look Down, Harmonious Saint. This is a demanding work in which the singer is required to negotiate with equal success sections of typically Handelian slow, expressive music and many examples of florid, extended passagework. Ed Lyons' voice seems well suited to the piece and I enjoyed his performance very much.
As one has come to take almost for granted with a Delphian release the presentational standards are high. The booklet, which is very clearly printed - some other labels, please copy - includes a most informative and well written essay by David Kimbell. The recorded sound is excellent and captures the performances ideally. This is a very fine Handel disc.
John Quinn
Previous review: Simon Thompson