To St Cecilia, Musiciens du Louvre/Minkowski, Barbican

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The Independent Culture

Not much fun being Saint Cecilia – semi-suffocated, half decapitated, still singing as she died – but much delight has accompanied her name.

A mistranslation of the Latin text led to her being credited with inventing the organ – ‘organi’ actually referred to musical instruments in general - after which her installation as patron saint of music was the logical step. An academy in Rome was set up in her name in 1594, and word spread to England in time for John Dryden to eulogise her in verse, and for Purcell to get in on the act using a different poet, composing four Odes in her honour. Handel set Dryden’s great words to music forty years later, with Haydn joining the line with a Mass dedicated to her memory at the end of the century. Since these three composers all have anniversaries this year, it seemed a neat idea to kick it off - in a compare-and-contrast spirit - with their respective Cecilian tributes.

But the really interesting comparisons turned on voices, because, by using the same soloists for each work, conductor Mark Minkowski measured them against three different sound-worlds. In Purcell’s ‘Hail! Bright Cecilia’, tenor Richard Croft’s bel canto sounded awkward, while Anders J Dahlin’s pure, vibrato-free tenor fitted the requirements of the music as though born to it. Soprano Lucy Crowe, whose voice seemed too peachy for Purcell, came gloriously into her own with Handel’s ‘Ode for St Cecilia’s Day’: duetting with a flute, she became a flute, and when she announced the day of judgement, she invested her sound with a trumpet-like quality. Meanwhile Haydn’s ‘Missa Cellensis’ allowed Croft to reveal what a superb artist he is: his delivery of ‘Et incarnatus est’ was breathtakingly beautiful. Nathalie Stutzmann, the contralto of the evening, was only brought on for the Haydn, but her voice too was a revelation: no other contralto has her ability to sound intimate and clarion-like at the same time, and what she did with the ‘Crucifixus est’ was magical.

Indeed, the whole evening cast a spell, even if neither soloists nor chorus sang Purcell's English text as though they meant and understood it. Each work highlighted different instrumental stars – oboist/recorder players in Purcell, a cellist and a flautist in Handel – while the ensemble as a whole generated a wonderfully warm and vibrant sound. And what a discovery the Haydn was. Why is it so seldom performed?

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