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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Concerto Grosso in A minor, Op. 6 No. 4 (1739)
Ode for St Cecilia’s Day (1739)
Cristina Grifone (soprano); Hans Jörg Mammel (tenor)
Musica Fiorita/Daniela Dolci.
rec. Adullamkapelle, Basel, Switzerland, November 17-21 2016.
Notes in English and German.
English text and translation in German included.
PAN CLASSICS PC10382 [59:41]

The Ode for St Cecilia’s Day is the second such work which Handel composed in honour of the patron saint of music. Smaller in scale than the earlier Alexander’s Feast, at around fifty minutes or so in length the Ode is overshadowed by that work, and certainly by the larger form of the fully dramatic oratorios which Handel was increasingly concentrating upon at that stage in his career (Israel in Egypt and Saul were written the previous year, and Messiah was to follow in 1741, with the another sizeable ode, L’Allegro, coming in between).

In her new recording, with Musica Fiorita, Daniela Dolci seeks to downsize the Ode’s impact still further by thinning out the forces used: the orchestra comprises one to a part, except in the violins and cellos, making 18 members altogether, with a further dozen singers to constitute the chorus. Dolci explains in the booklet that the resulting interpretation “follows a sleek and light sound aesthetic without compromising the sound colour spectrum”. In theory there may be a good reason to try this approach, whatever any claim to ‘authenticity’, but the practical question is whether in practice this offers any new perspective on the work to listeners in the 21st century.

In favour is the palpable rhythmic vitality of this performance, which impels it with purpose and direction, not least in the opening section of the Overture – which almost sounds like a march despite its triple meter – and in the irresistibly delineated syncopations of the orchestral accompaniment to both the opening chorus ‘From harmony’ and the aria ‘Orpheus could lead’. The trumpets are suitably clear and radiant in ‘The trumpet’s loud clangour’ and the ensuing March, whilst in ‘The soft complaining flute’ the eponymous solo is delicate and graceful.

But weighing against this intimate approach is the inevitable fact that the music loses out on some of its necessary grandeur and ceremony. The strings can sometimes be barely heard in quieter passages, and even in louder ones they fail to make much impact. By themselves the dialogue between violins and viola is lucid, but the prominent strumming of the pair of theorbos in the continuo section tends to occlude the bowed strings. The proactive theorbo during ‘What passion cannot music raise’ may be apt given its reference to “when Jubal struck the chorded shell”, but the overall effect is diminished given that its timbre also stands out in several other movements in this recording anyway, and it disturbs this aria’s atmosphere of rapture and calm.

The two vocal soloists are variable. Cristina Grifone is the more dependable of the pair, with her purer quality of voice, though within limits, as she does not manage to sustain a consistent tone across the melodic leaps of ‘But oh! What art can teach’. It is also a pity that she fails to project her solo interjections in the concluding number ‘As from the power of sacred lays’ with more arresting drama and force, as these fall between the affirmative acclamations of the chorus, in the same awe-inspiring fashion that Handel had memorably pioneered in the equivalent chorus at the climax of Israel in Egypt. Hans Jörg Mammel sounds somewhat stretched in tone, lacking lyricism, but more problematic is his pronunciation of ‘a’s which come out more like ‘e’s, as if they had an umlaut, which tends to turn his singing into a drawl.

It is no great loss, then, that the short length of this disc is not filled out by the inclusion of either of the other two occasional works which Handel composed in devotion to St Cecilia: neither the recitative and aria ‘Look Down, Harmonious Saint for solo tenor’, as the release on Delphian does, and which Hyperion also features in John Mark Ainsley’s inspired performance on their disc of the unrelated masque Acis and Galatea; nor the Italian cantata Cecilia, volgi un sguardo for soprano and tenor which Hyperion appends on its own recording of the Ode.

Another oddity of this Pan Classics issue is that it prefaces the work with one of the Opus 6 Concerti Grossi which Handel composed very soon afterwards. As the Ode opens with a substantial three-movement overture anyway (soon re-worked as the fifth of the Opus 6 set) it would perhaps have been better to feature another such concerto as an instrumental interlude during or after the Ode. It is doubly curious that, of the set, one of the most sombre – in the key of A minor – is selected rather than a brighter, more complementary example. Nevertheless this is a lithe performance of the Concerto by Musica Fiorita who relish the bustling second movement and vigorous finale, and also the delicious suspensions of the third.

Listeners are hardly likely to buy the disc just for the Concerto, however, and overall it is likely to be of only passing interest to those who wish to hear the Ode in reduced format, but that seems to be a perverse decision in such ceremonial work which surely demands the grander perspective which the Hyperion and Delphian recordings rightly accord to it.

Curtis Rogers



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