Alexander’s Feast

Handel arr. Mozart
Alexander’s Feast [sung in German]

Sally Matthews (soprano)
Paul Agnew (tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)

Choir of The English Concert

The English Concert
Andrew Manze


Reviewed by: Erwin Hösi

Reviewed: 1 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Andrew Manze has unearthed quite a peculiarity for his appearance at this year’s Proms, presenting a version of Handel’s “Alexander’s Feast” arranged by no less an admirer than Mozart. Commissioned by fellow Freemason Baron Gottfried von Swieten, Mozart was given the (presumably lucrative) opportunity to elaborate new versions of four of Handel’s great choral works, among them the piece performed here. Handel’s score, though acknowledged to include some great vocal writing, was in Mozart’s time considered hopelessly old-fashioned; Mozart’s task consisted of ‘pepping up’ a musical texture that was considered too thin and simple.

Violin parts had to be smoothened; some harmonies were added; out-of-date recorders were replaced by state-of-the-art traverse flutes. In fact, as Manze points out, the wind parts were substantially revised. And the work underwent yet another significant change: Dryden’s original English text was replaced by Karl Heinrich Ramler’s German translation.

Ironically, the latter constituted a bit of a problem both for the audience and the vocal performers, who, despite their long and proven experience, did not appear to be completely at home in the phonology of the language. Surprisingly, the most awkward moments (for this humble native speaker) were evoked by Paul Agnew who has previously been more than an equal performer of so many of Bach’s works. Technically, his performance was thoroughly convincing: his melismas were all brilliantly on the point and he took the more forceful declamation this score demands in his stride.

With her strong vibrato and full voice, Sally Matthews’s first aria gave a clear hint that this was Handel aesthetically moved forward in time. “Der König horcht” went at least half the way down to 19th-century opera, and helped explain why contemporaries perceived Mozart’s version as ‘romantic’. Later, as Matthews’s material became more tranquil, the contemplative tone of so many of Handel’s arias was heart-stoppingly matched by her voice’s crystalline clarity. The most convincing among the soloists, however, was Roderick Williams, who also introduced a noticeable element of acting into his role. His powerful but elegant voice corresponded well with the thunderous episodes of the second part.

What is there to say about The English Concert and Andrew Manze? The orchestra performed with its well-known energy and transparency, enveloping the music in velvety strings and colourful winds; and there was a rich choral sound. Manze’s keen ear for detail and accuracy, combined with his admirable musicianship, ensured a delightful evening.

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