Alexander’s Feast 

Handel: Alexander’s Feast 
London Handel Orchestra & Singers, Laurence Cummings 
London Handel Festival
St George’s, Hanover Square. 23 February 2023

Handel’s birthday seemed a particularly appropriate day to open the 2023 London Handel Festival and to hear his ode for St Cecilia’s Day Alexander’s Feast. The libretto is based on John Dryden’s 1697 Alexander’s Feast, or the Power of Music, written to for Saint Cecilia’s Day. It recounts the story of a banquet held by Alexander the Great and his mistress, Thaïs, in the captured Persian city of Persepolis, during which the musician Timotheus sings and plays his lyre, arousing various moods in Alexander. The power of music takes a turn for the worse when Alexander is incited to destroy Persepolis in revenge for his dead Greek soldiers.   

This impressive performance made the most of Handel’s imaginative music, which ranges dramatically in style and mood. Conductor Laurence Cummings (Artistic Director of the London Handel Festival) is a master at revealing the emotional depths of Handel’s music, and his inspirational conducting was a delight to exprience, particularly seeing the way he interacts with the chorus.

Alexander’s Feast is eminently stageable, but it is not an opera or an oratorio. Although in his oratorios, Handel often performed organ concertos during the intervals, on this occasion he includes two concertos and a concerto grosso as an integral part of the piece. These are often omitted but, commendably, this performance included all three of them. Lisa Vandermissen was a sensitive soloist in the Concerto in Bb for Harp, Lute and Lyrichord (which also survives as an organ concerto), with fine support by Jonas Nordberg on theorbo. I am not sure if this has ever been performed with a Lyrichord – a rather weird attempt to turn a harpsichord into a hurdy-gurdy. Some modern versions do exist, but on this occasion, the muted strings and delicate harpsichord playing helped to creat the mood of Timotheus’s lyre playing which, at that point early in the story, was intended to ‘inspire heavenly joys’.

During the feast given by Alexander the Great after his defeat of Darius at the Persian capital Persepolis, the poet and musician Timotheus manipulates Alexander’s emotions. After praising him, he sings of the pleasures of wine, encouraging Alexander to drink. Seeing the inevitable result of that, he then calms him down by singing about the death of Darius before praising the beauty of Thaïs, Alexander’s lover. Part One finishes with music ‘winning the cause’ of Alexander’s love for Thaïs.

Part Two opens with the Concerto Grosso in C (HMV 318) before Timotheus’s lyre raises anger and vengeance in Alexander (‘Revenge, revenge, Timotheus cries’), with the result that he burns down the Persian palace. The concluding sequence reflects on the emotional power of Timotheus’s lyre “While organs yet were mute”, but St Cecilia is then introduced as the “inventress of the vocal frame” – the organ, which in the context of this ode, was seen as a sacred rather than secular instrument. This heralds the four-movement Organ Concerto (Opus 4/1), with Laurence Cummings’s nifty fingers taking over the organist role from the continuo keyboard player, Alistair Ross.

The soloists were soprano Lucy Crowe, tenor Joshua Ellicott, and bass Jonathan Lemalu. Joshua Ellicott was a short notice stand-in but, unforgivingly, no information was given to the audience about him in the handout. All excelled, although I do think the soprano could have toned down the louder of her high notes – a comment soprano issue. The chorus made an impressive and well coordinated sound, helped by the encouragement of Cummings. The ode finished with the appropriate text “And may this evening ever prove / Sacred to harmony and love“.

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I hope readers will not mind if I finish with some self promotion. Since it was built in 1998, the chamber organ originally intended for the nearby Handel House Museum has been resident in St George’s, Hanover Square. However, it will soon move to its enlarged planned home. I have been invited by The Handel Friends to give a farewell recital on the Handel organ and the magnificent 2012 Richards Fowkes & Co church organ. This will be on Tuesday 25 April at 7pm in St George’s, Hanover Sqaure. It will include a solo organ version of the Organ Concerto in Alexander’s Feast as it might have been performed by an 18th century parish church organist.
Admission on the door is £12, which will include refreshments.