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Handel: An Ode for St Cecilia's Day
22 Oct 2006

HANDEL: An Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day

“Cecilia, cast a glance upon the land of Britain, and you will see that in sonorous strains it renews on this day the pleasing memory of your name so dear. . . .”

G.F. Handel: An Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. Cecilia, volgi un sguardo

Carolyn Sampson, soprano; James Gilchrist, tenor; Choir of the King’s Consort; The King’s Consort; Robert King, Director.

Hyperion SACDA67463 [CD]

$21.98  Click to buy

These opening words from Handel’s cantata, “Cecilia, volgi un sguardo,” point to a special relationship between England and the patron saint of music, and never was that more the case than in the late seventeenth century when the feast day (November 22) elicited annual festivals, marked by grand-scale church music, odes, and sermons on musical themes. Purcell’s contributions set the bar high with odes for the 1683 and 1692 festivals and a Te Deum-Jubilate pair for 1694. Handel’s entry into the London musical scene post-dates the annual festivals, but the Cecilian tradition, so amply solidified by Purcell, is one that Handel furthers with great flair in his own day, and he does so with unconstrained Englishness. Chief among his contributions are settings of two works by John Dryden, “Alexander’s Feast” and “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” the latter of which is splendidly recorded here by Robert King and the King’s Consort.

The text for “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” is in part a traditional trope on the power of music, especially the particular powers of individual instruments. Part of the joy is clearly the unfolding of movements featuring “the trumpet’s loud clangor,” “the soft complaining flute,” passionate violins, and the “sacred organ.” And the players of the King’s Consort bring the lauded characteristics to life with unflagging skill. However, the richest of the instrumental obbligati is ironically not from one of the instruments named in the text; in the aria “What passion cannot Music raise and quell” the solo cello line is a jewel, played here by Jonathan Cohen with a memorable expressiveness and finely sculpted dynamic shading.

In addition to the poetic catalogue of instrumental attributes, the text is framed by Dryden’s evocation of music at the creation of the world and, ultimately, at the end of the world, as well—“the dead shall live, the living die, and Music shall untune the sky.” The opening description of creation is powerfully evocative, pointing ahead, it seems, to Haydn’s famous representation of Chaos in “The Creation.” It is in these movements, as well, that the eighteenth-century propensity for pictorialism is fully engaged.

A brilliant work, it receives a brilliant rendition. In addition to the excellent instrumental forces and the tightly focused choir, “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” glories in the singing of soprano Carolyn Sampson and tenor James Gilchrist. Gilchrist sings with a wonderfully free tone, handling the florid passage work with flair and the intimate sections with an engaged expressive manner. Sampson is at her best in the Ode where she sings with noble simplicity (“But oh! What art can teach”) and in reflective moods. For example, her flexibility of sound allows her, along with flautist Lynda Sayce, to shape a tonal partnership of unusual eloquence and closeness in “The soft complaining flute.”

Both Gilchrist and Sampson have much to keep them busy in the cantata “Cecilia, volgi un sguardo,” originally performed as an interlude between the acts of “Alexander’s Feast.” The opening tenor aria, “La Virtute è un vero nume,” is extremely florid and Gilchrist meets the challenges with masterful command. Sampson’s “Sei cara, sei bella,” is a challenging aria, not least for its quick change of gestures and affections. Where it is florid, Sampson is confident and at ease; where it is rapturous, she is compellingly luxuriant, as in the suspension-rich, middle section of the aria. Through it all her sound is radiant, her expression, responsive, and her performance never less than memorable.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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