Alexander's Feast
Ode for St. Cecilia's Day
~Both arranged by W.A. Mozart~

Arabesque Z6762-2
2 CDs
full price
Recorded in 1993.
Released in 2003.

Lynne Dawson, soprano
John Mark Ainsley, tenor
Alastair Miles, bass (Alexander's Feast)
William Sharp, bass-baritone (Ode for St. Cecilia's Day)

Handel & Haydn Society Chorus
Handel & Haydn Society Orchestra (on period instruments)
Conductor: Christopher Hogwood

- Sung in German -




Baron Gottfried van Swieten is best remembered for his libretto for Haydn’s The Creation, and maybe for the cameo representation of him in the film Amadeus (the nice one among the Emperor’s cronies who wanted Mozart to write serious opera and do well). In reality, Swieten was an exceptionally cultured man with a passionate interest in ‘old’ music. By the late 1780s Handel and Bach were already considered antiquarian. Mozart wrote that Sweiten held regular musical parties where ‘nothing is played but fugues by Handel and Bach’. Swieten also collected manuscripts of Handel’s finest works, and, unlike some 18th century collectors, was evidently interested in actually hearing these masterpieces performed. However, it seemed practical to translate the text into German, and to invite Mozart to re-orchestrate the accompaniments in order to adapt them to contemporary Viennese taste.

Some Handel lovers are induced to rage by anybody altering a note of the original score (unless, it seems, you happen to be René Jacobs). Contrary to what purists may claim, Mozart did not maliciously set out to ‘improve’ upon Handel’s original. It was simply that tastes and musical techniques had changed. We can either needlessly complain about this, or appreciate that at least somebody in late 18th century Vienna cared enough about Handel to go to such trouble. It is important to understand that Mozart retained all of Handel’s original scoring as closely as possible, and generally added woodwinds and discrete flourishes in order to illustrate a variety of emotional moods already inherent in Handel’s music. It is a sign of respect that Mozart did not alter a single note of the ghostly middle section of ‘Revenge, Timotheus cries’. Indeed, these arrangements are full of examples where the response of one musical genius to another is revelatory.

At least the Viennese had a musician of Mozart’s calibre to arrange Handel’s music. Likewise, we are particular fortunate to have this recording of Alexander’s Feast from an eminently suitable team, including stunning contributions from Lynne Dawson and Alastair Miles at their very best. John Mark Ainsley is particularly magnificent throughout, and his clear graceful tenor voice causes me to lament that he no longer records much Handel. Hogwood’s performance is particularly successful in blurring the Handelian and Mozartean styles. The Handel & Haydn Society perform with charm and relish. Hogwood’s sensitive and affectionate shaping of the orchestra and choir in this performance make it rank among his half-dozen finest achievements as a recording artist. Most satisfying is the uncompromising decision to perform this as a faithful representation of Mozart’s arrangement. There is no advantage whatever in playing Mozart’s orchestration while singing from Handel’s original vocal score in English (a practice which was once common with Messiah). This is an illuminating and enjoyable performance on every level of appreciation.

Hogwod’s ‘Das Alexander-Fest’ is especially valuable because it is the first recording of Mozart’s version (to my knowledge). Although Christoph Spering recorded the Cecilia Ode arrangement some years ago for Opus 111, Hogwood’s performance of the Ode surpasses it in every respect. It is rarely discussed that Hogwood made an admirable recording of Mozart’s Acis und Galatea at around the same time, but it was not available for long before Decca ruthlessly deleted it. Perhaps Mozart’s reorchestrations of Handel’s works, especially performed in a stylish Mozartian manner in German, only have a limited market. Yet it has always been a badly kept secret that Hogwood had made further recordings of Mozart’s Handel arrangements for the late lamented L’Oiseau Lyre division of Decca, and that Polygram (and subsequently Universal) got cold feet and withheld their release indefinitely.

Perhaps Decca’s decision that this recording would not generate substantial profits was prudent. Nevertheless, in artistic terms, this hugely enjoyable recording proves that the company made a considerable mistake that deprived us of some of Christopher Hogwood’s most satisfying work, and a performance sparkling with life, emotional contrasts, and musical integrity. It isn’t easy to make Handel’s greatest English music sound comfortable in German Mozartian form, yet Hogwood does this with disarming brilliance. This is certainly the most persuasive and rounded performance of a Mozart/Handel arrangement I have yet heard. I do not exaggerate Mozart’s version as worthy of equal status to Handel’s original composition, but there ought to be special allowances for experiencing the great masterpiece of the supreme theatre composer of his age being reflected by the taste and retrospective perception of another. It is not a matter for us to judge and condemn, but is an aspect of reception history that we should accept. If Arabesque markets this recording effectively it ought to have a highly acclaimed success on its hands, although I fervently hope that it isn’t a decade too late for the journalists and public to be interested.

© David Vickers - September 2003

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