Those who follow early music activities in San Francisco will probably recall that this past December Philharmonia Baroque presented a program entitled Hail, Bright Cecilia!, which included George Frideric Handel’s HWV 76, a verbatim setting of John Dryden’s “A Song For St. Cecilia’s Day.” Handel composed this in 1739, and he intended it as a supplement of a previous (and lengthier) setting of another Dryden ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day, “Alexander’s Feast, or the Power of Music.” In this case Handel worked with a libretto by Newburgh Hamilton, which was closely based on the Dryden source.
The result of this earlier effort was HWV 75, Alexander’s Feast, composed in 1736. While HWV 76 was of relatively modest length, HWV 75 was a full-fledged spectacle in two parts, each with its own overture (the second of which is the HWV 318 “Concerto in Alexander’s Feast”), and two additional concerto interpolations. Yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Jeffrey Thomas led the American Bach Soloists, American Bach Choir, and soloists in an almost-complete account of this major undertaking, omitting only the second of the interpolated concertos.
This was, indeed, an undertaking of impressive magnitude; and that magnitude tended to be best served by the rich and sparkling sonorities of the American Bach Choir. On the downside Handel’s treatment of Newburgh’s libretto involves considerable repetition. Nevertheless, even when the chorus was simply repeating words that had already been sung (many times) by one of the vocal soloists (soprano Anna Gorbachyova, tenor Aaron Sheehan, and baritone William Sharp), the spirit of the music always enjoyed a new jolt of adrenaline when the chorus put their own twist on those words. Sometimes this involved additional musical sophistication, particularly when Handel took the choral entry as an opportunity for a fugue. However, just the sounds of Handel’s music for full chorus and orchestra tended to be enough to raise the spirits of the listener who felt that the whole affair was getting bogged down in too much da capo work.
The author of the Wikipedia page for HWV 75 claims that the success of its first performance “encouraged Handel to make the transition from writing Italian operas to English choral works.” This may be true; but, when it comes to maintaining audience attention over a long duration of time, many of those Italian operas (even some with utterly ridiculous plots) hold their own far better than HWV 75. This may be because Handel knew how to use his opera arias to develop rich character studies, drawing on the da capo form to explore different dimensions of personality traits. In HWV 75, on the other hand, the repetitions seem to do little more that iterate text for those who missed it on the first round; and, after this happens about half a dozen times, things tend to get a bit tedious.
None of this is made any easier when the libretto starts repeating individual words or phrases. Once we learn that “Darius Great and Good” has “fall’n,” we really do not need that past tense verb repeated unto extremes (and to return with the same repetitions in the da capo)! The same goes for Alexander himself, besotted with both love and wine, who “sigh’d and look’d” at Thais, over and over again until all he can do is fall asleep on her breast. Sadly, none of the vocal soloists could rise very high above these many uncomfortable confrontations between words and music, which is why the choral work emerged as the performance’s greatest strength.
However, if the treatment of text had more than its share of longueurs, there was still much to enjoy in the instrumental work. Most important was the interpolation in the first part of the ode. When Timotheus first starts to play his lyre, Handel switches over to his HWV 294 concerto in B-flat major for “Harp, Lute, Lyrichord and other Instruments” (according to the title page). The soloist was Maria Christina Cleary playing on a triple harp (and, when she was not serving as concerto soloist, she was adding to the continuo for the rest of the music). As the program book notes by Steven Lehning explained, this instrument had three rows of strings. The outer two both had the usual diatonic scale, while the inner one supplied chromatic pitches. Handel clearly understood the capabilities of this instrument, and Cleary’s account of the score had all of the elegant rhetorical turns that one encounters in Handel’s other keyboard music. Similarly, the “overture” for the second part was the HWV 318 concerto grosso in C major, which bubbled with delightful solo passages taken by violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and Jude Ziliak and cellist William Skeen.