Handel: Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day

Cover of Handel Ode to St Cecilia CD

[Cassandra Lemoine soprano, Benjamin Butterfield tenor,] The Bach Choir of Bethlehem, The Bach Festival Orchestra, Greg Funfgeld
Analekta AN 2 9541

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This recording celebrates the 120th anniversary of America’s oldest Bach choir, The Bach Choir of Bethlehem based in Pennsylvania, which holds the honour of having given the first US performances of Bach’s B minor Mass and Christmas Oratorio. It is a large choir and the Bach Festival Orchestra play on modern instruments, and while Greg Funfgeld clearly encourages a vibrato-free sound from his tutti strings, some of the solo string episodes sound a little over-romanticised, while the large vocal ensemble can sound a little overwhelming and spongy. The two vocal soloists have pleasant focussed voices and give passionate accounts of their arias. This recording is never less than pleasant and enjoyable, but to my ears it sounds a little dated in conception. I couldn’t avoid comparing it to a performance I discovered recently on you-tube by the Florida-based ensemble Seraphic Fire of Handel’s Zadok the Priest – state-of-the-art period instrument playing and some of the best choral Handel singing I have ever heard. It really depends what you want from your Handel – I find now that I derive little pleasure from performances with large numbers of voices and modern instruments, such as the rather pinched piccolo trumpet we have here. I know that within a few years of Handel’s death performances of his music with massed choirs were all the vogue, but for me once I had heard the clarity and precision of small period-instrument bands and specialist choral forces, I was dissatisfied with the alternative. If this doesn’t bother you, you will find this account by the American forces perfectly enjoyable, and indeed it is a reading into which a lot of thought has gone, and it is never less than musically tasteful and honest.

D. James Ross