HANDEL: An Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day

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 Ë 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

image_description=Handel: An Ode for St Cecilia’s Day
product_title=G.F. Handel: An Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. Cecilia, volgi un sguardo
product_by=Carolyn Sampson, soprano; James Gilchrist, tenor; Choir of the King’s Consort; The King’s Consort; Robert King, Director.
product_id=Hyperion SACDA67463 [CD]