CD Review: Handel: Alexander's Feast

Ludos Baroque/Richard Neville-Towle (Delphian)

16 October 2011 4 stars

Promises, PromisesIf, sometime soon, you find yourself browsing the classical shelves at the local record store (or, these days, corporate mega record store), you will undoubtedly come across several recordings (both good and bad) of Handel's Messiah: that charming yet over-played oratorio from which the famous "Hallelujah" chorus hails. Harder to find, however, will be a recording of his earlier (and under-performed) ode Alexander's Feast, which recounts Alexander the Great's susceptibility to the affective power of music. John Dryden's Song for Saint Cecilia's Day (later revised and extended as Alexander's Feast) combines the legend of Alexander and his devious court musician Timotheus with stories about Alexander's flaws to paint a Janus-like picture of the power of music with a heavily moral twist.

Handel set Dryden's Ode in 1735 and the work premièred, a year later, to great acclaim. The success of the venture in part paved the way for the composer's transition away from the composition of Italian opera to oratorio. One wonders, then, why there are not more recordings of this early essay in the English choral tradition.  Alexander's Feast is an unquestionably dramatic work, and Ludos Baroque's first recording on the Delphian label—under the direction of Richard Neville-Towle—is indeed a sumptuous musical and dramatic feast for both the heart and ear.

Ludos Baroque is a chamber ensemble whose 18 singers are handpicked from the UK's best choirs; combined with the forces of an expert (presumably auditioned) orchestra playing on period instruments, their collective excellence is heard on every track of this outstanding CD. The overture is played with a crisp clarity that defines Neville-Towle's approach to the subsequent music. The opening is evocatively sung by tenor Ed Lyon, whose voice is large enough to provide considerable excitement but not too large so as to overbalance the ensemble. Soprano Sophie Bevan is considerably less exciting in her first recitative "The song began from Jove;" however, what Bevan lacks in enthusiasm she makes up for with an impeccable sense of style (best showcased in her later "The prince, unable to conceal his pain"), a sense that incredibly seems to pour forth from each track on this album. William Berger sings a rousing "Revenge, Timotheus cries," giving the aria's ending that little bit of extra volume and an inevitable sense of risk; his gamble pays off and does not fail to evoke an exhilarated smile.

The diction of both soloists and ensemble throughout is as crisp as the articulation of individual notes, but the ensemble really shines through their cohesive and well-blended sound that is neither too bright nor too dark. Inevitably for a British choir, the sopranos will always be bright; Neville-Towle, however, thankfully manages to create a bright soprano section without destroying their warmth, as heard in the evocation of celestial power "The list'ning crowd admire the lofty sound." It is in the opening section of this track that the characteristically dark-colored and forceful power of the altos can be heard complimenting the sopranos in a highly successful reciprocity. The basses provide an unexpectedly curious amount of poignant warmth and vital energy to the entire disc. The tenors seem to be the only section that are not quite as consistently blended as the other voices, especially during extended lyrical sections that call for a healthy amount of vibrato.

Neville-Towle's striking interpretation of Handel's Alexander's Feast must be heard; it is a two-disc set from which subsequent interpreters of Handel will look to for inspiration in its expert execution and impeccable sense of style.

By Michael Migliore