Handel: Alexander’s Feast

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COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Carus
WORKS: Alexander’s Feast, HWV 75; Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, HWV 76
PERFORMER: Simone Kermes (soprano), Virgil Hartinger (tenor), Konstatin Wolff (bass); Kölner Kammerchor; Collegium Cartusianum/Peter Neumann
CATALOGUE NO: 83.424 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Handel was on top form when he revived Alexander’s Feast with the newly-written Ode for St Cecilia’s Day on 22 November, 1739. The texts of both clearly kindled his musical imagination – HWV 75 is subtitled ‘The Power of Music’, Timotheus’s lyre evoking thoughts of love, of bacchanalian partying turning to violent memories of war, remorse and revenge.

The Ode opens with Haydnesque descriptions detailing individual words – cold, hot, moist, dry – and then praises trumpets and drums, flute and ‘sharp violins’ (in tone, not intonation!), the organ, and finally Cecilia’s voice. Handel, freed from the stylised conventions of his principle occupation, opera, teasingly replaces da capo solo repeats with choruses, and builds expansive, integrated structures out of alternating solo voices and choir.

Neumann’s forces respond magnificently. Solo voices have a rare, natural ease. In Alexander’s Feast, Simone Kermes’s accompanied recitative ‘With downcast looks…’ is breathtaking; Konstantin Wolff is thrilling in ‘Revenge Timotheus cries’ and terrifyingly evocative as bassoons conjure up ‘a ghastly band [of ghosts]’; Virgil Hartinger (a new voice to me) captures equally well the narrative role in Alexander’s Feast and the brilliance of ‘Trumpets loud clangour’ in the Ode.

The clarity of the choir belies its 27 voices, while the orchestra, similarly proportioned, is splendidly taut. Handel himself, with his love of loud percussion, could not have asked more of the ‘double, double, double beat of
the thundering Drum’. 

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Surround-sound reflects the spaciousness of a Cologne church, with effective stage-placing, voices audibly forward of orchestral accompaniment. In short, this recording is an outstanding contribution to the Handel anniversary celebrations. George Pratt