LABELS: BBC Legends
WORKS: Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day
PERFORMER: Heather Harper (soprano), Peter Pears (tenor), Osian Ellis (harp); Chorus of East Anglican Choirs, Ambrosian Singers, ECO/Benjamin Britten
CATALOGUE NO: BBCB 8009-2
Handel’s glorious setting of Dryden’s delectable St Cecilia Ode was the appropriate choice for the 1967 opening of the Snape Maltings concert hall. Britten was no apostle of authenticity, but there is nothing old-fashioned or heavy about his crisp rhythms, and the choral sound, nicely laid out in stereo, is clear despite the large size of the combined choirs. Heather Harper similarly was no ‘early music’ singer, but the purity of her intonation, clear diction and unforced lovely sound place her high in my estimation of ideal singers in this repertory. Pears is similarly authoritative. Keith Harvey’s eloquent cello solo is Romantic within the parameters appropriate to such music. Today the harpsichord continuo (Philip Ledger) might seem over-elaborated, as are the instrumental cadenzas, notably the duet for flute and lute (track 7), where Richard Adeney and Julian Bream go collectively a little crazier than the text (‘the soft complaining flute’), never mind Handelian style, can possibly warrant. But it is nevertheless all beautifully done; the recording is excellently balanced and the whole generally highly pleasurable.
From a Queen Elizabeth Hall concert of the same year come the delightful instrumental miniature ‘Hankin Booby’, and the Choral Dances, for some time the only part of Gloriana not seriously neglected. Happily the opera is now better known, but the dances remain among its freshest inventions. Britten arranged them with connecting phrases for Pears accompanied by Osian Ellis (harp), and the Ambrosian singers are as spirited as ever. Julian Rushton