Ode for St. Cecilia's Day
~ HWV 76 ~

Naxos 8.554752
1 CD
budget price
Recorded in 1999.
Released in 2004.

Dorothee Mields, soprano
Mark Wilde, tenor

Alsfelder Vokalensemble
Concerto Polacco (on period instruments)
Conductor: Wolfgang Helbich





Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day was composed in 1739 for use as an interlude in a revival of Alexander’s Feast, and, like its parent work, is set to poetry by John Dryden. DG Archiv recently reissued Pinnock’s recording of it that is still comfortably the best. Other performances suffer by comparison, but tend to contain at least something of interest worth hearing. In the case of this new Naxos version, the aspect worth hearing is without doubt the soprano soloist Dorothee Mields. Her ‘What passion cannot Music raise and quell’ is sublimely sweet, and her clean straight tone ought to please admirers of ‘early music’ sopranos who possess vibrato-less voices that seem to soar without effort. At such a cheap price, the recording is worth buying for Mields alone. Yet, unfortunately, she is more or less alone. Tenor Mark Wilde is reliable, but is often a little behind the beat. In the opening recitative ‘From harmony, from heav’nly harmony’ he is also a little under the note, although his assured delivery of ‘The trumpet’s loud clangour’ is exemplary. 

The overall performance is serviceable enough, but the choir and orchestra both lack weight and expression. Sadly, Handel’s ‘heav’nly harmony’ often sounds unsupported and thin, with only the bass and top lines of the music clearly audible. The middle parts of Handel’s orchestral and choral writing are underpowered and weak, with the choir’s tenors particularly notable by their lack of presence. One can only assume that such disappointing lack of balance is due to Wolfgang Helbich’s unimaginative direction rather than the recording venue or engineers. The obbligato contributions are competent without being especially distinguished, and the entire performance has an unfortunate perfunctory and uncommunicative air. Naxos has not yet produced any Handel recording that is as good as it ought to be, even at budget price. While the label’s baroque and early music recordings have generally improved in recent years, there is still a gulf in quality between this performance and DG Archiv product that is nearly 20 years old. Helbich’s previous Handel recordings includes a decent performance of The Ways of Zion do mourn on CPO (999 244-2), and his work evident here is similarly never offensive or ugly. This disc is not necessarily to be avoided at all costs, but neither is it possible to perceive why Naxos waited for nearly 4 ½ years to release it.

© David Vickers - March 2004

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