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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Handel: Alexander's Feast; Ode for St. Cecilia's Day

11/24/2013 1:00 pm
11/24/2013 4:30 pm


Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

George Frideric Handel's Alexander's Feast is just the thing to listen to at Thanksgiving time, since the oratorio describes a famous feast in classical antiquity. As originally given in London in 1736, Handel's musical setting of the poem by Dryden did not quite make a full evening's entertainment, so the composer augmented his score with an entire concerto grosso by way of an overture, and inserted two solo concertos, for organ (which Handel himself played) and harp respectively, these acting as interludes between the two long parts of the sung music, and besides that he offered his audience one of his Italian language cantatas. All of this was intended to praise St.Cecilia, the patron saint of music. (In the traditional Christian calendar the feast of St. Cecilia falls on November 21st.) In Dryden's poem it is she who pushes aside the excesses of Alexander's pagan festivities.

This Sunday will be the third time over three decades of broadcast history that I will be again presenting the excellent 1991 Collins Classics issue of Alexander's Feast on two compact discs. Conductor Harry Christophers has remained true to the original 1736 version of Handel's score. We get to hear the solo instrumental works in their proper placement, with the customary closing chorus to the words of Newburgh Hamilton, but the Italian cantata has been omitted. Christophers leads his own choral group The Sixteen, with an ensemble of period instrumentalists, not to mention vocal soloists soprano Nancy Argenta and bass Michael George. Not only did Alexander's Feast not quite make a full evening's concert, it also does not fully fill out an afternoon's lyric theater timeslot.

There's time remaining to fit in Handel's 1737 choral work Ode for Saint Cecilia's Day, also a setting of a poem by the seventeenth century English poet John Dryden. The recording I've chosen for broadcast comes from my own CD collection, and it's a thoroughly historically-informed interpretation. One of the pioneers of this historical approach to baroque music, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conducts the period instrumental group he founded,the Concentus Musicus of Vienna, with the Bach Choir of Sweden. The two vocal soloists are English soprano Felicity Palmer and tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson. Telefunken/Teldec reissued this 1978 release in compact disc format in 1989 in its "Harnoncourt Edition" series.