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

ARCHIV blue 474 549-2
1 CD
budget price
Recorded in 1985.
Originally released in 1986.
Reissued in 2003.

Felicity Lott, soprano
Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor

Choir of the English Concert
The English Concert (on period instruments)
Conductor: Trevor Pinnock

Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day is not one of his most popular and familiar works, but it should be. It was composed in 1739 for use as an interlude in a revival of Alexander’s Feast (which is itself rather like a large Cecilia Ode). Both works are settings of poetry by John Dryden, and both caught Handel on richly inspired form. The overture is one of Handel’s finest and most vibrant orchestral compositions, the opening accompagnato ‘From harmony, from heav’nly harmony this universal frame began’ conveys a delightful compound of wondrousness and wit, and it is followed by a chorus that tackles Dryden’s poetry head-on, yet somehow the composer transcends the poet’s prescription. Most of the ensuing arias contain explicit instructions to the composer, and titles like ‘The trumpets loud clangor’ and ‘The soft complaining flute’ must have made certain decisions for Handel before a note was composed. 

There are a few recordings of the Ode, although Pinnock’s performance – originally released in 1986 – remains by far the best. Much of its durable polish and sparkle is due to the sweet honey-toned contributions of Anthony Rolfe Johnson, the clarity and flexibility of the choir, and the consistently tasteful lyricism of The English Concert. Anthony Pleeth contributes an exquisite cello obbligato in ‘What passion cannot music raise and quell’, although several other members of the band chip in with comparably fantastic playing. Pinnock reminds us of his talent as an organist in ‘But oh! what art can teach’, and his direction of the performance is remarkably lovely and evergreen. 

Although there are many fine aspects to this performance, I doubt that the first 12 minutes of Pinnock’s performance will ever be bettered for its freshness, musicality, and sheer quality. It is a shame that there are a few brief distortions during ‘The trumpets loud clangor’ and the final chorus ‘As from the pow’r of sacred lays’, and I am not personally enamored with Felicity Lott’s powerful voice. But, lest we forget, the Cecilia Ode is a concept designed to glorify a variety of musical instruments while making a point that the most glorious and perfect music is that which descends from heaven. It seems to me that The English Concert’s performance is still an ideal realization of that philosophy.

© David Vickers - February 2004

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