Handel, re-orchestrated Mozart, and arranged Mosel
Timotheus oder Die Gewalt der Musik [Alexander’s Feast] – Ode in two parts to a libretto by John Dryden, adapted by Newburgh Hamilton, translated into German by Carl Wilhelm Ramler [sung in German]
Roberta Invernizzi (soprano), Werner Güra (tenor) & Gerald Finley (bass)
Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien
Concentus Musicus Wien
Recorded 28 & 29 November 2012 in the Musikverein, Vienna
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL 88883704812 (2 CDs) Duration: 1 hour 36 minutes Reviewed: December 2013
Timotheus oder Die Gewalt der Musik [Alexander's Feast] – Handel / Mozart / Mosel – Nikolaus Harnoncourt [Sony Classical]
Reviewed by Curtis Rogers
This recording is of a concert that marked the bicentenary of the founding of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna and reconstructed its opening performance, which featured several hundred musicians (professional and amateur) performing Mozart’s re-orchestration of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast – as Timotheus oder Die Gewalt der Musik – with some further touching up (such as the addition of a bass drum, and extra brass) by Franz Ignaz von Mosel, who changed the title to Timotheus and also conducted. Nikolaus Harnoncourt used the original orchestral parts in preparing this performance. A work praising the power of music was an obvious choice for the society’s opening concert, but it also had political overtones as the Austrian Empire’s musical proficiency was represented as a factor in the part it played in the defeats inflicted upon Napoleon that year.
The 1812 performance took place in the Spanish Riding School where Mosel was able to mount a gargantuan spectacle. Harnoncourt mustered as many musicians (including about a hundred singers) as could fit on the stage of the Musikverein. The result is audibly that of a great ceremonial occasion, with very vivid and immediate sound – sometimes too hectoring – not least when the brass and drums come to the fore (beware having the volume too high). The choir members are full-voiced and clearly enjoy themselves, and the whole effect is rather like those massed performances of Handel’s oratorios under Sargent or Beecham, except that there is no vibrato of course, and the ‘period’ brass instruments are rather rasping, and at times the woodwinds sound acidic.
Subtle this performance isn’t, but Harnoncourt does manage to draw out wide (but not exaggerated) expressive and dynamic contrasts. The ‘Andante’ of the Overture is a graceful dance, for instance, and there is a quiet dignity in ‘Er sang den Perser’ (in mood and key foreshadowing ‘He was despised’ in Handel’s Messiah). Unfortunately, except for Gerald Finley (with just two arias), the soloists are not at their best. Werner Güra’s singing is often bland and uninspired. Worse, it’s rather worrying that the melismas in ‘Selig, selig, selig Paar’ seem rather a strain for him, and his taking breaths in the middle of these are audible. Roberta Invernizzi is musically more varied in her part (her solo in ‘Er sang den Perser’, for example, is moving), but she is often wobbly and intonation is sometimes insecure – her reaching up to the high B flats in ‘Thaïs führt ihn an’ is not pretty.
At best then, this release serves as a record of what must have been a lively and memorable occasion in Vienna’s venerable musical calendar. With more intelligent and nuanced renditions it could have been an even more worthwhile document charting the influence which Handel’s music had beyond his adopted English home, in mainland Europe during the 19th-century.