Notes and Editorial Reviews
Magical. There is a freshness about this performance which is wholly enchanting.
Acis and Galatea
Stephen Darrington, cond; Jeni Bern (
); Benjamin Hulett (
); Nathan Vale (
); Brindley Sherratt (
); Christ Church Oxford Cathedral Ch; Oxford Philomusica
NIMBUS 6201 (75:36
Text and Translation)
In 1743 George Fredrick Handel conducted his pastoral serenade
Acis and Galatea
at Christ Church in Oxford. This was the same year that he published the score in its “authentic” English two-act version, and over the next years it became one of his most popular pieces for the concert hall. The story is somewhat basic. The shepherd Acis loves the nymph Galatea, and although his pal, another shepherd Damon, warns him that this will lead to no good end, they find brief happiness in the bucolic setting of the fields. Unfortunately for Acis, Galatea has also attracted the attention of the jealous Cyclops Polyphemus. She of course rejects her monstrous suitor, and Acis goes out to fight Polyphemus. The Cyclops solves the confrontation by dropping a rock on the shepherd, and after some mourning, Galatea is persuaded to turn her dead lover into a fountain.
The versions of the work made outside England are quite diverse, ranging from a simple reorchestration by Wolfgang Mozart in 1788 for one of Baron Gottfried van Swieten’s Viennese performances to an augmented, full-blown three act version produced in 1774 in Stockholm, with additions by Hinrich Johnsen (including what was probably one of the world’s first anvil choruses). It was probably inevitable that Carl Friedrich Zelter, the head of the Berlin Singakademie who specialized in resurrecting the works of the baroque, would consider
for performance there in his own concerts. In order to appeal to modern tastes, Handel’s original scoring of strings, the odd woodwind, and continuo was considered too spare; even Mozart’s version of the previous century had attempted to “update” it, and Zelter too probably felt that this was necessary. He entrusted the task to his precocious pupil, Felix Mendelssohn, in 1828. Mendelssohn was then 19 years old and had already embarked upon a career as a soloist and composer. Although he completed his reorchestration in short order, Zelter apparently did not use it, and it was not until 1835 that Mendelssohn, to whom the manuscript had been returned, performed some selections at a concert at the Gewandshaus in Leipzig. A complete performance was only done in 1869, after which it was given to the Bodleian Library. As Mozart’s version was better known, Mendelssohn’s was relegated to the archives until a new edition from which this recording was made surfaced last year.
The arrangement that Mendelssohn made largely preserves the Handelian string parts, adding a viola so that the sparse texture of the original becomes thicker. Since the continuo was no longer extant, this meant turning the recitatives into accompagnatos, making them somewhat more fluid. He also used his trademark “classical” orchestration of pairs of woodwinds and horns, though in several movements he adds trumpets and timpani to bolster the sound, such as in the chorus “Happy we.” In the pieces by Polyphemus he calls for a “corno inglese di basso,” sort of a predecessor cross between a heckelphone and a serpent, a rather nasal and awkward instrument that emphasizes the Cyclops’s grotesque features. Performed here by a contrabassoon, it offers little real added sound to the somewhat transparent orchestration of Mendelssohn. As for the structure itself, the arranger has often simplified some of the rhythms to accommodate the added orchestration. Nowhere is this more evident than in Polyphemus’s famous aria, “O ruddier than the cherry.” The timpani roll that precedes Acis’s recitative “Help, Galatea,” is positively sepulchral. In short, Mendelssohn’s interventions are nicely done, always tasteful, even if purists would prefer Handel’s original score. I would venture to say that they are every bit on the same level as Mozart’s version, though of course all such comparisons tend to be a bit invidious.
The performance by the well-disciplined choir of Christ Church and the resident Oxford professional orchestra, the Philomusica, is energetic and evokes Mendelssohn’s sense of orchestral color well. Conductor Stephen Darrington keeps things lively and moving along. The soloists are all pretty much at the top of their game, though I find both Jeni Bern and Benjamin Hulett occasionally using a bit of excess vibrato; but again, this is not a period-instrument performance, and such would have been perfectly acceptable in Mendelssohn’s time. The purists out there who insist that Handel should only be done in his versions with the performance forces of his time (and with only a grudging nod to Mozart) will no doubt find this version wanting, but for myself, I find that it is every bit as enticing and well done, bringing a well-received new perspective to Handel’s pastoral fable. Highly recommended.
FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
Handel wrote the masque Acis and Galatea in 1718 for the Duke of Chandos to words by John Gay. Like the set of anthems composed at that time for the Duke it required only modest forces – five singers, four of whom sang the solo parts, two woodwind players doubling oboes and recorders, two violins and continuo. His later revisions did not fundamentally alter its scoring even when more performers were involved. Mozart provided additional accompaniments in 1788 for a performance in Vienna. In 1828 Mendelssohn, at that time a student at Berlin University, was asked to make a version for a performance by the Singacademie. It appears that it may not have been used by them and that the first use of it may have been in London in 1869 conducted by Sir Joseph Barnby. Novello’s vocal scores from that period offer orchestral parts for sale of both Mozart’s and Mendelssohn’s versions, as well as the composer’s original scoring but performances of Mendelssohn’s version seem to have been rare.
In arranging the work Mendelssohn added a viola part and parts for woodwind and brass, in part simply filling in the continuo harmonies. However, like Mozart, he went further than that and rewrote, shortened, occasionally extended and more often omitted numbers. “Hush, ye pretty warbling choir” is subject to a simplification of the figuration as well as additional woodwind lines. “Happy we” is extended, and in several numbers the second violins are given an independent line. Mendelssohn wrote for performance in German but the original English text is used in this recording.
The present recording is described by the conductor as “a true Oxford project”, with performers drawn from that city and making use of the arranger’s manuscript now in the Bodleian Library. In a word, it is magical. There is a freshness about this performance which is wholly enchanting. The bass line is kept firm but light, a crucial requirement in Handel, and rhythms bounce along, avoiding any of the kind of heaviness fatal to the music. The soloists are well chosen, all characterising well, especially Brindley Sherratt as Polyphemus. The choir are admirable, even if their pronunciation in “Oh the pleasure of the plains” suggests that they are particularly well bred shepherds. This actually adds to the listener’s pleasure in stressing the delicious artificiality of the whole work. I have not heard the Oxford Philomusica before. They are apparently a professional orchestra based in Oxford, and as heard here they deserve a much wider audience.
Nimbus have done all in their hands that is necessary for the listener’s pleasure by providing a model booklet, with a lengthy essay by Peter Ward Jones, the complete English text and good notes about the performers. With Mendelssohn’s help they manage to get it all on a single disc. Obviously this disc supplements rather than replaces versions of Handel’s original, but as a change for the listener and as a delightful work in its own right this is one of the most enjoyable recordings I have heard for a long time.
– John Sheppard, MusicWeb International Read less
Works on This Recording
Acis and Galatea, HWV 49 by George Frideric Handel
Benjamin Hulett (Tenor),
Jeni Bern (Soprano),
Nathan Vale (Tenor),
Brindley Sherratt (Baritone)
Oxford Christ Church Cathedral Choir,
Score arranged by Felix Mendelssohn.
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