Handel: Ode for St Cecilia’s Day

Handel: Ode for St Cecilia’s Day
Bach Choir of Bethlehem

Bach Festival Orchestra, Greg Funfgeld
Analekta AN 2 9541

Cover of Handel Ode to St Cecilia CD

The first thing to understand is that this is not the Bach Choir of Bethlehem – or at least, not of that Bethlehem. This Bethlehem is in Pennsylvania – and the Bach Choir is a 120-year-old amateur choir. It is the oldest Bach choir in America and gave the first performances in the USA of Bach’s B minor Mass and the Christmas Oratorio. This recording reflects their anniversary.

Handel’s Ode was written for the 1739 celebration of St Cecilia’s Day by the Musical Society of London. With an orchestra playing modern instruments and a large 88-strong choir they are someway from modern ideas of Handel performance. Other aspects of performance reinforce that impression, including the vocal style. Although the instruments play with a reasonable degree of precision, many aspects of their playing, as well the singing of the chorus, reminds of the sort of sound I was weaned on some time ago. The solo string moments have a degree of vibrato and romanticism that is rarely heard in modern performances (notably, for example, in the cello solo in What Passioncannot music raise and quell), although it does reflect a certain historical style, if not Handel’s or todays.

The principal vocal soloist is soprano Cassandra Lemoine, her clear and relatively stable voice is the highlight of the recording. Tenor Benjamin Butterfield has a couple of arias as well as the opening recitatives. Director Greg Funfgeld also celebrates his 35th anniversary as conductor. Whatever you might think of the performance style, he maintains a consistency of approach.

Whatever its status when compared to modern professional period instrument orchestras and specialist early music choirs, this recording reflects what has in the past been considered an historically appropriate style. I would loved to have heard their Bach performances in their early days. Further information and some track extracts can be heard here.