Ode for St. Cecilia's Day
~ HWV 76 ~
Cecilia, volgi un sguardo
~ HWV 89 ~

Hyperion Records
CDA67463 / SACDA67463
1 disc
full price
Recorded in 2003.
Released in 2004.

Carolyn Sampson, soprano
James Gilchrist, tenor

The King's Consort (on period instruments)
Conductor: Robert King






It’s ironic that John Dryden’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, unarguably among the most perfect pieces of English poetry ever, was set to music with such excellent results by two foreigners: Giovanni Battista Draghi in 1687 and Georg Friedrich Händel in 1739. Ironic, or perhaps edifying in a trans-cultural perspective. Not that they had much choice, however. The terse economy of Dryden’s lines, where every single adjective seems to fit naturally both sense and metrics, makes the Ode an ideal libretto text, often suggesting tone-colours, textures, tempi, harmonies and even individual contrapuntal devices. This poetry about “the power of music” is music in itself (shall we call it meta-music?); no real musician, irrespective of his/her cultural background, can escape its spell and dispense from singing in the right tune – not even the mercurial Nikolaus Harnoncourt in his remote recording of 1978 which, in my opinion, sounds today far less outdated than some of his Bach cantatas.  

Those often-commented circumstances come to mind while listening to Robert King’s rendering of Handel’s setting, whose compelling eloquence he elicits with unfailing awareness of in-built rhetoric transitions and just the right amount of energy. He can be as lofty and duly pompous in the overture as he is deep and passionate in the sarabande-aria with a luscious obbligato ‘cello or urging in the short “alla hornpipe” movement praising Orpheus’ musical wonders. Both outer choruses are properly paced to depict the making of the universe and destruction thereof: they sound as grand powerhouses of pumping rhythms and shifting harmonies always on the verge of explosion, but never trespassing into chaos – or, if they do, it’s an educated chaos. “From harmony to harmony” is the keyword, even when the orchestra weaves its mighty spirals around the broad choral chords, or vice versa.  

Economy, power, and some inner smile – as in the seminal passage about the “fury, frantic indignation” of the despised lover (unison violins raving in delirious semiquavers) or in the boisterous trumpet aria depicting the ultimate source of warlike courage: “the foes come, charge! ‘tis too late to retreat” – well, that was it! A modern gaze on Baroque conventions, possibly; yet nothing which distorts either the letter or the overall balance of a performance which is by all means “classical”: elegant, fluid, letting the beauty of the written notes emerge without apparent effort. Soprano Carolyn Sampson and tenor James Gilchrist are the right soloists for this kind of approach: beautifully rounded voices in command of swift ornamentation, messa di voce in the long-kept notes, discreet vibrato when strictly needed. Their utterance is crisp, their phrasing sensible throughout. If one adds similar qualities in most of the obbligato instruments and in a well equalized choir, one may conclude that with the present recording Robert King has probably scored his best achievement to the present date. A pleasant – if under all respects musically inferior – filler piece is provided by the Italian pasticcio-cantata Cecilia, volgi un guardo, whose connections with the topic about “the power of music” and its kindred Handel work Alexander’s Feast are highlighted in Anthony Hicks’ liner notes, as learned and user-friendly as ever.

© Carlo Vitali - November 2004

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