John Butt is not a conductor content to take over uncritically any received view of a work, but in a number of instances has given audiences a fresh slant on a major Baroque composition by cutting through layers of performance practice and textual variants subsequent to a composer’s original thoughts. In the case of Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day (1739) later revivals, unusually, occasioned virtually no alterations by the composer, except for one re-written aria (‘The soft complaining Flute’). In common with other performers, he preserves Handel’s original, and so the only textual discovery is the restoration of a second (minor-key) Minuet in the final part of the Overture which was deleted prior to the first performance.
The Dunedin Consort’s interpretation of Handel’s Ode (setting words by John Dryden that revel in the role of music within the cosmic order) brings the work to life with enthusiasm, charm, and wit – seemingly literally so in the opening accompanied recitative as the tenor recounts how it was “from heav’nly harmony [that] this universal frame began”. Ian Bostridge sings with an odd drawl that adds a not inappropriate baritonal darkness to this description of inert, primeval nature, but he does sound strangely demonic, brightening up for ‘The trumpet’s loud clangour’ afterwards, though still with slightly skewed vowels.
Although there are no musicological points to be made, calling for any radical reassessment as to how this work should be presented, Butt ensures that the various movements are distinctively characterised in order to impart something like a narrative thrust as various instruments are put in the spotlight. The organ solo of ‘But oh! what art can teach’ is a touch wheezy, however, and although Carolyn Sampson generally sings with steady, clear focus in that number and elsewhere, her high notes are a tad shrill, and the vibrato of her interjections in the concluding chorus is somewhat too effusive.
The Polish Radio Choir provides a solidly integrated and often diaphanous texture that tempers the celebratory nature of the work. In that respect the choir of the King’s Consort on Hyperion brings out more monumentality and ceremony, and Sampson herself, partnered by James Gilchrist, offer more corresponding consistency as the vocal soloists there.
Nevertheless the urbane temper of Butt’s recording is continued in a spirited account of Op.6/4, dating from the same year as the Ode (coincidentally adopting the same pairing as in a recent release on Pan Classics). This choice of one of the more introspective works from that diverse set of twelve Concertos complements the well-balanced reading of the Ode, as well as the fact that the latter’s Overture comprises movements which found their way into the more majestic Fifth Concerto of the Opus 6 collection. One may regret, though, that Handel’s two vocal pieces for the celebration of music’s patron saint, ‘Look down, harmonious saint’ and ‘Cecilia, volgi un sguardo’ were not selected to fill out the disc.