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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
An Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day, HWV 76 [50:45]
Concerto Grosso in A minor Op. 6 No. 4 [10:30]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Ian Bostridge (tenor), Polish Radio Choir, Dunedin Consort / John Butt (harpsichord)
rec. 2018, Krzysztof Penderecki Hall, ICE Kraków Congress Centre, Poland
Texts included.
LINN CKD578 [61:15]

I have been enjoying Jane Glover’s new book Handel in London where she says of the Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day “All the vocal writing, whether arias, or the supporting or framing choruses, is utterly distinguished”. That is nearer the mark than Winton Dean’s curious dismissal in his 1959 standard survey of Handel’s oratorios, where it is described as “a comparatively superficial work containing a great deal of mediocre Handel”. Most performers would not agree with that assessment, and fine CD versions are still in the catalogue from Daniele Dolci (Pan Classics 2017), Diego Fasolis (Arts 2008 SACD), Robert King (2004 Hyperion SACD), back to Pinnock, Harnoncourt, Ledger, Willcocks and even Benjamin Britten. That’s a lot of talent to devote to “mediocre Handel”. And Handel could always respond to criticism of his setting by pointing out that some of the music was taken from Muffat, and we should have heard what it was like before Handel had finished transforming it!

There is of course a fine English tradition of celebrating the patron saint of music, from Purcell to Britten (who was born on St. Cecilia’s day). Handel’s setting of Dryden’s 1687 poem, which Dryden himself called “A Song for Saint Cecilia”, was first performed in 1739 at Lincoln’s Inn, along with a revival of Alexander’s Feast, Handel’s setting of Dryden’s other text on Saint Cecilia. Handel’s Ode is written for soprano, tenor, chorus and orchestra and is a tribute to the power of music, and to the instruments Dryden’s verses list (cello, trumpet, drum, flute, lute, violin, organ), all given obbligato parts. There is a traditional substantial multi-section overture, and the Dunedin Consort could not be more sprightly in the main allegro, strings and winds challenging each other to heights of flexibility as so often in Handel. It makes a wonderful start to a fine recording of a great work.

Butt has two very distinguished Handelian soloists. Soprano Carolyn Sampson also sings the part on Robert King’s Hyperion disc, usually my preferred version. She sings absolutely beautifully here throughout, just as she did 15 years ago for King. Ian Bostridge has been a leading artist for 25 years or more, but his tenor sound is still very attractive, and his musicianship quite magical, not least in baroque music with a text in English. The performance was recorded during the 2018 Misteria Paschalia Festival in Poland, and the Polish Radio Choir are excellent, (as is their English pronunciation). Whatever concert takes or retakes we have here – there is no indication apart from the range of dates above – it feels ‘live’, and not because of any mishaps but because of the immediacy of communication, familiar from the Dunedin’s other Handel recordings.

This dramatic immediacy is particularly striking in the score’s best-known number, the air for tenor and chorus “The trumpet's loud clangour excites us to arms”. Bostridge is maybe less mellifluous and clarion-voiced than James Gilchrist on Hyperion, but not by much, and he is even more spirited and stirring in his martial vigour. He is rhythmically very alert in the “double, double, double beat of the thund'ring drum” and so are the players. There is a wonderful tactile quality to the recording of Paul Sharp’s trumpet and Alan Emslie’s timpani. Though the latter‘s instrument has such a fine Handelian sound maybe we should use Handel’s term for it - ‘kettledrum’. In fact all the obbligato instruments are well played and captured by the recording, from “What passion cannot music raise and quell” with its cello solo through to “But oh! What art can teach” with its tribute to Cecilia’s own instrument, the organ. That number brings one slight disappointment with a tempo I found a touch dirge-like, though it might be that I am too attuned to the King version which takes 4:46 against Butt’s 5:30. That apart, the timings of the two versions are very similar, with Butt taking just 2 minutes longer for the whole 50 minute work. Butt’s concluding section is terrific, with soprano, trumpet, orchestra and choir all as inspired as Handel was by Dryden’s cosmic vision:

“So when the last and dreadful hour,
This crumbling pageant shall devour;
The Trumpet shall be heard on high, -
The dead shall live, the living die,
And Music shall untune the sky.”

The disc has a short filler in a splendid account of Handel’s Concerto Grosso in A minor Op. 6 No. 4, which makes a nice bookend effect since the overture to the Ode was recycled by the composer as Op. 6 No. 5. The recorded sound is very involving, and the booklet notes (entirely in English) are interesting and helpful with of course the full text of the Ode – though you can hear nearly all of it perfectly clearly, such is the diction of these singers.

This will now take its place for me alongside the Hyperion version, and for a while at least becomes the one I will turn to first, to celebrate St. Cecilia’s day each 22nd November.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: Brian Wilson

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