Westminster Abbey Choir/St James's Baroque Players/O'Donnell, Westminster Abbey, London

An echoing vale in the Abbey

Bayan Northcott
Thursday 04 July 2002 00:00
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There is a certain frisson to enjoying the splendours of Alexander's Feast in Westminster Abbey while imagining the many other Handel performances those ancient stones must have soaked up, all the way back to the four great choruses he directed himself at the coronation of George II in 1727. Not without mishap, it would seem, for as the then-Archbishop of Canterbury noted on his service sheet, "The anthems in confusion; all irregular in the music".

No confusion whatever, of course, was to be expected from James O'Donnell's measured direction of the 40-odd men and boys of his Westminster Abbey Choir and the 33-strong period-instrument professionals of the St James's Baroque Orchestra arrayed in front of the Rood Screen. Yet, even from a seat as close as 40 feet, it was evident what Handel was up against. The Abbey acoustic lends a lovely bloom to the sound of such instruments as natural horns, but it simultaneously disperses attack and detail in a most bemusing way. The delicate harp playing of Frances Kelly in the concerto that forms part of this Cecilian Ode virtually dematerialised, and much of the rest sounded as if heard from the middle distance of some echoing vale.

Still, one's ears gradually adjusted – as how could they not to a score of such colour, drama and invention. Handel was teetering between the fading fortunes of Italian opera and the future possibilities of English oratorio when an adapted text of Dryden's flamboyant poem came his way in 1736, with its resonant rhymes and almost proverbial diction – "None but the brave deserves the fair," and so on. And its depiction of the minstrel Timotheus evoking each of the primary passions – pride, joy, pity, love, anger – in the breast of Alexander the Great through the power of music, offered an irresistible opportunity to demonstrate the full range of his compositional gifts.

All it needs is irresistible performers – such as the soprano Deborah York, floating a lovely pure line; or the counter tenor Charles Humphries, eerily evoking the pathos of the defeated Darius; or the tenor Rufus Muller elegantly sustaining the narrative; or the bass Peter Harvey sonorously invoking "Bacchus, ever fair and young".

Meanwhile, the Abbey Choir rose strongly to the end choruses of the work's two parts – the quadruple-fugue second of them confronting Timotheus with St Cecilia. And so, amid the tombs and monuments of the Nation's Great and Good, another Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music came to its triumphant end.

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