OUTSTANDING AT ITS BEST
DAVID BRYSON | Glossop Derbyshire England | 11/18/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I find Ledger very liveable-with as an exponent of Handel - authentic ma non troppo, using small forces, countertenors, boy trebles in the chorus and a full continuo, but also instruments that 20th/21st century ears are comfortable with and not afraid to take a slow tempo where that serves expressiveness in the modern sense. Handel does not need any `selling' to me - I find him endlessly fascinating - but I can't imagine better advocates for him than Ledger or Mackerras to music-lovers who may still balk at `all-the-way' authenticity as offered by, say, McCreesh.
For my own part, I would have bought these 5 discs at almost any price just to hear `Revenge Timotheus cries' in Alexander's Feast sung by Thomas Allen. It is my very favourite bit of Handelian swashbuckle, in one of my very favourite Handel works. I can never get over the matchless art of Handel's word-setting, and that in a language that he himself never learned to speak perfectly. Nobody ever came near his instinct for when and how to repeat words and phrases. His solos are often difficult, but he never gives his vocalists instrumental music to sing as Bach regularly does, still less does he subject voices to brutal strain as Verdi would later do. His choral writing was described by Beecham as unapproached since his time. Full texts are not provided here or in the other works, but I doubt you will need to visit the website mentioned - composer and interpreters both ensure that the words can be heard without effort. In Alexander's Feast there is some slightly dubious intonation by the sopranos (where was the superb Jill Gomez who worked with them in the Ode for St Cecilia's Day?) but the trumpet-voiced Robert Tear (a born Handel singer) and the great Tom Allen are superb throughout. I commend in particular the marvellous soprano aria `The prince unable', and you should be prepared for a minor confusion at tracks 21-22. These would make more sense as described in the liner-note, but what has happened is that the first section of `Revenge Timotheus cries' and its extraordinary middle section `Behold a ghastly band' have found their way into track 21 leaving only the da capo of `Revenge Timotheus cries' on track 22. Also, without a score to hand I can't be sure whether some opening notes have dropped out of the first number on cd5 `Thais led the way'.
The Choice of Hercules was put together as a perfunctory framework to accommodate some music Handel had done for an opera that never made it to production. The individual numbers are good quality, but it all hardly amounts to more than a recital. However the women soloists are on more reliable form than in the far superior Alexander's Feast.
With this new Saul I have an alternative to my cherished LP set from Mackerras, and I immediately made the startling discovery that the small part for the High Priest has vanished without comment in Ledger's version, although his final recitative is allocated to Abner. Neither the Oxford Companion to Music nor the lavishly-produced Mackerras set sheds any light on this, and the Flower biography only makes a fleeting reference to alternative versions of the work, but in truth there is hardly any such thing as a definitive Handel score. Saul contains two famous `effects' - the raising of the ghost of Samuel by the witch of Endor and the Dead March. I would add a third, the hair-raising chorus `Envy eldest born of hell' that starts part 2. The notes in this are easy to sing somehow, but the low pitch makes fullness of tone difficult in the octave plunges on `envy' and the downward marching scales. I still await the performance of my dreams here, but for now Mackerras has the edge. At Endor Mackerras's John Winfield sings more witchily, but the bassoons in both versions rise to the occasion, and if you are expecting something spectacular from the 3-time in the voices against 4-time in the orchestra, be aware you will have to listen hard to catch the effect. I am not in my element in the dismal genre of funeral marches, but all my life Handel's Dead March, in its major key, has filled me with awe where Beethoven's, Chopin's and Wagner's efforts leave me cold, and this time it is Ledger who wins hands-down. In general I am grateful to have either version let alone both. The approach is very similar and the recording is excellent in both, Mackerras has better sopranos, Ledger an outstanding tenor and bass. If it were just a matter of Saul, the inclusion of the High Priest in Mackerras would shade it for me - I'm not bothered whether he `detracts from the dramatic flow' etc, as Saul seems to me animated narrative rather than drama as such. More music by Handel is what counts with me, but this 5-disc set is an outstanding collection, which I got mainly for the glorious Alexander's Feast anyhow. Competent musicologists will no doubt know why Ledger's pitch is a semitone lower than either Mackerras's or my piano's."
Alexander's Feast is the opening gate to modern music
Jacques COULARDEAU | OLLIERGUES France | 04/20/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Handel is finally finding his free inspiration, his personal style. Do not expect any heroic action in this Ode, not any religious or even ethical morality. Cecilia is not even referred to as a saint. No martyrdom for her, no blood, suffering nor tears. She is only referred to as Cecilia, the « inventress of the vocal frame », the great woman who used « Nature's mother-wit and arts » to get music beyond all possible limits. This Ode is only concerned by music. Timotheus, the old patron, with the help of Bacchus, can do a lot, but not much nevertheless. He can use some intruments like the lyre, the flute or the harp, but that is limited when compared with the explosion of instruments after Cecilia invents the organ. He can use intonation and character in singing, but that remains still limited. It can sing war and victory, death and defeat, love and passion, but it cannot go yet as far as the sky, because, with Cecilia, the sky is the limit of music, and only the sky. That new music is an angel offered to us by Heaven to give our life the best experience we can ever imagine : « Music to Heaven and her we owe, the greatest blessing that's below. » And Handel manages to merge together the English tradition, especially after the renewing it went through with Purcell who recaptured the very popular and flexible polyphony of the numerous choirs of this country, the brilliance and lightness of the Italian tradition that makes every note, every instrument, every musical sentence a gem of their own that has to outshine all the others without ever succeeding except to always go higher into the light of the sky, the sun and the stars without ever reaching a final end in this search, and the formal and rich German way of constructing music like a cathedral, each stone having a function in the whole building. This Ode becomes a purely pleasant and entertaining moment and it does not seem to expect anything else : bring pleasure to the people, the pleasure any soldier of life deserves to rest their limbs and their minds, to bathe their souls in pure beauty. Just a few more years and Mozart will be with us.Dr Jacques COULARDEAU"
Two Mighty Pinnacles in Handel's Sierra...
Giordano Bruno | Wherever I am, I am. | 09/20/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"...in a bargain box of 5 CDs for only $19.98! Wow! That was irresistable, even though I have other CDs and still playable LPs of both works. The good news is that these two performances by the English Chamber Orchestra, Philip Ledger, are not half bad, considering how long-in-the-tooth they are, recorded in 1975 and 1981. Baritone Thomas Allen (Saul) could sing with any current ensemble, but many of the other soloists learned their technique a little too early for "early music." Since 1975, a whole generation of gifted young singers have devoted themselves exclusively to the Baroque vocal repertoire, learning style from the trial-and-error of earlier performers. The recording of Alexander's Feast by 'The Sixteen,' led by Harry Christophers, is my current choice, and the CDs of Saul by 'The Gabrieli Consort,' led by Paul McCreesh, is spectacular. Together, however, they'll set you back four times the cost of this bargain release. Whatever you do, avoid the performance of Saul by Helmut Rilling with the Stuttgart Collegium; this inexpensive one is far better.
Alexander's Feast, written in 1736, was Handel's first great effort to accomodate English musicianship and English taste - his inauguration of what George Orwell called his "big bow-wow" style. Orwell detested Handel, and recordings by the warhorse choruses and symphonies of his era explain why, but to my ears, sung well, Alexander's Feast is stunning - sonorous, manly, stately. The text is Dryden's Cecilian Ode of 1697, which Handel set to be performed on St. Cecilia's Day at Covent Garden. It was triumphantly succesful with the German-Italian composer's new English audience - bluff, sturdy, slightly stuffy Georgian Londoners who'd lost track of music on the Continent during the Calvinist ascendancy. They were music lovers though! How many Americans today regard St. Cecilia's Day - she was the Patroness of Musick - as a more festive occasion than Christmas? Georgian Englishmen did.
Saul was composed two years later, and already Handel had progressed in his thoroughly English manner. The chorus in Saul plays a much bigger role, as dominating as it would be in the later oratorios like The Messiah. Saul was also Handel's first collaboration with Charles Jennens, the eventual librettist for The Messiah. Telling the tragic/triumphant story of the transfer of Jehovah's favor from King saul to the young man David, this oratorio is Handel's biggest Bow-Wow of all, full of military fanfares and marches, pealing bells, paeans of victory, declamations of majesty. Wonderful, stirring music, adored by wind instrumentalists.
These are two of Handel's most invigorating and entertaining compositions. Honestly, if you haven't heard them, you can't really claim to be much of an explorer in the range of Handel's peaks."