~ HWV 75 ~
Recorded in 1990.
Reissued in 2005.
- Includes Organ Concerto, Opus 4, No. 1 & the Harp Concerto, Opus 4, No. 6.
Nancy Argenta, soprano
Ian Partridge, countertenor
Michael George, bass
The Symphony of Harmony and Invention (on period instruments)
Director: Harry Christophers
Originally released as Collins Classics 70 162.
Reissued by the Musical Heritage Society in 1998.
In his new foreword to this reissued recording, Harry Christophers writes that he ‘always felt the work was lacking in substance, or that the listener felt unfulfilled’ by Handel’s setting of a Dryden Ode that explores the far-reaching consequences of the ‘Power of Musick’. Although I do not share Christophers’ reservations, I applaud his solution to the alleged problem: this performance of Alexander’s Feast is made magical by the simple restoration of the harp concerto (Opus 4 no. 6) and the organ concerto (Opus 4 no. 1) that Handel created for specific dramatic effect in the first performances of the ode in 1736. The harp concerto, lyrically played by Andrew Lawrence-King and the continuo players of Tragicomedia, is intended to evoke the minstrel Timotheus’ masterful playing of the lyre. Incidentally, Stephen Stubbs and Erin Headley’s gorgeous contributions to the harp concerto make it the only recording to do full justice to its scoring for ‘harp, lute, lyrichord, and other instruments’. Likewise, the organ concerto is intended to represent the superior divine power of music created by St Cecilia, and is superbly played by Paul Nicholson.
In fact, the restitution of these two concertos makes such perfect sense of the poetry, that it is a shame all performances of Alexander’s Feast do not use them. In addition, the singing of the Sixteen and the immaculately balanced playing of the Symphony of Harmony and Invention make me wish that Christophers had included the so-called ‘Alexander’s Feast’ concerto grosso (included in John Eliot Gardiner’s fine Philips recording), and the Italian ode ‘Cecilia, volgi un sguardo’. Both of these were also inserted in the ode during its first run in 1736, but at least curious Handelians can now reconstruct the entire experience using available recordings.
Alexander’s Feast is full of delectable musical treasure, with Handel rising to match Dryden’s poetry with memorable effect. Ian Partridge’s grainy tenor seems a little dry compared to Harnoncourt’s suave Anthony Rolfe Johnson, and less vivacious than Gardiner’s comparably grainy Nigel Robson, but Partridge’s sense of timing and sympathy for the poetry is masterful. I am ashamed to admit that I had forgotten exactly how superb Nancy Argenta is at her best, and her performances here are stunning without exception. Michael George is also on excellent form, with his ‘Revenge, Revenge, Timotheus cries’ notable for its clean and articulate delivery.
The Sixteen is a splendid source of musical wonder, with its polished blend and pinpoint accuracy always evident yet always subservient to the sense of thrilling rapture. The ever-reliable Harry Christophers is on especially sparkling form, and the entire performance is beautifully paced and intelligently judged. I am happy to admit that Alexander’s Feast is one of the few works I would choose to demonstrate the fullest and most charismatic nature of Handel’s genius, and I have always found this performance to be particularly congenial. Although by no means an old recording, it has been unavailable for too long since the demise of Collins Classics, and it is certainly the best Handel recording that these performers have made. I am delighted to warmly welcome its reissue on Coro, and hope it wins the ode many new friends.
© David Vickers - February 2005
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