HANDEL Ode for St Cecilia's Day
The eight verses of Dryden’s ‘Song for St Cecilia’s Day’ (1687) narrate the power of music from the creation of the universe by the harmony of the spheres through to the last trumpet at the Day of Judgement. Handel’s setting (1739) was an afterpiece to a revival of Alexander’s Feast – another Dryden poem that also cleverly examines the power of music – that took place on St Cecilia’s Day.
Musica Fiorita play the Overture with stately elegance, although the quick Allegro’s potential for conversational wittiness is overlooked and the entry of the lower strings that launches the charismatic fugue lacks pizzazz. The orchestra play the extraordinary accompanied recitative setting of Dryden’s first verse spiritedly, and it is sung capably (if a bit drily) by Hans Jörg Mammel; I enjoyed his swaggering ‘The trumpet’s loud clangour excites us to arms’ (featuring Jean-François Madeuf’s impressive expertise on the natural trumpet, without the safety net of drilled holes to modernise intonation). Cristina Grifone’s words are indistinct in ‘What passion cannot music raise and quell’ (the obbligato cello is disadvantageously waspish); the organ solo and strings in ‘But oh! what art can teach’ chug along methodically and do not beguile.
Fielding a modestly scaled choir of three voices per part, including the soloists, Daniela Dolci shapes the choruses assertively and her tempos are judicious; but recasting some orchestral passages for solo instruments does not improve on Handel’s own intentions (the decision to use a solo violin in ‘Sharp violins proclaim’ is blatantly ungrammatical). Interesting ideas tend to be etched boldly at the expense of poetic charms.