It has only probably been from the second half of the 20th century that such arrangements have been looked on as unacceptable by purists. Whilst the period instrument movement has brought great gains in our understanding of earlier music it has had the unfortunate effect of some snootiness arising over performances that tinker around with the original.
Mozart took a purely practical approach to earlier music and, indeed, did later figures such as Elgar and the conductor Leopold Stokowski who thought nothing of re-orchestrating Handel and Bach.
A new release from Nimbus Alliance www.wyastone.co.uk features a recording of Mendelssohn’s arrangement of Handel’s Acis and Galatea performed by the Oxford Philomusica http://oxfordphil.com and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford www.chchchoir.org conducted by Stephen Darlington www.chchchoir.org/stephen-darlington.
As Stephen Darlington points out, there are Oxford connections to this music as, not only is Mendelssohn’s original score kept at the Bodleian Library, but also Handel conducted the work in the Great Hall in Christ Church in 1743.
Why did Mendelssohn, like Mozart, decide to make changes to the orchestration of Acis and Galatea? The answer is from a purely practical point of view, in that during the 18th century great changes of orchestral texture took place as music moved from the Baroque to the Classical period. Handel used a fairly simple orchestral palette with one or two upper parts supported by a bass, with harpsichord or chamber organ filling in.
Acis and Galatea was produced when Handel was working at Cannons, the country home of the Duke of Chandos, near the village of Edgware in Middlesex. It was originally called a masque, then a pastoral. The modest resources available at this nevertheless palatial house meant that the work needed to be of chamber proportions with only four soloists who also had to double as part of the chorus.
Mendelssohn, in addition to increasing the strings and woodwind, added two trumpets and timpani as well as a part for a type of serpent, a brass instrument used in military bands of that era.
The plot, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is pretty simple. It tells of the love between the sea nymph, Galatea, and a shepherd, Acis. Despite warnings from his fellow shepherd, Damon, the two lovers are united. The jealous Polyphemus intervenes and kills Acis after which Galatea turns Acis into a fountain so that, in the final words of the masque, he can continue ‘murmuring still his gentle love.’
Right from the opening overture Handel’s vibrant, bouncing rhythms are heard filtered through Mendelssohn’s orchestration. The strings sound Handelian yet the brass and woodwind give a larger sound. Nevertheless, the music still immediately draws one in and the Oxford Philomusica add to this draw with vibrant, lively and infectious playing. Every so often, usually when the strings dominate, Handel’s sound emerges. The choir of Christ Church Cathedral are their usual excellent selves, singing with admirable control and sensitivity.
Jeni Bern (soprano) as Galatea has a suitably youthful sounding voice. Though having a quite wide vibrato on long held notes, she is controlled and expressive. Benjamin Hulett (tenor) as Acis has an attractive tenor voice in the aria Where shall I seek the charming fair.
Nathan Vale (tenor) who sings Damon, has a voice that has an almost mezzo timbre which works well in Handel and in the aria Shepherd what art thou pursuing? He sings with wonderful control. In the aria Love in her eyes sits playing, Benjamin Hulett gives a lovely performance with the quiet string playing having an almost period instrument sound.
In the duet, Happy we, I didn’t feel that Jeni Bern and Benjamin Hulett always blended as well as they might with the tenor slightly dominating. The chorus in this section are superb as they are in the following chorus, Wretched lovers, where they excel themselves with singing of great precision in the part writing of this tremendous chorus.
Brindley Sherratt (bass) is in fine form as Polyphemus, rich and firm in the recitative, I rage, I melt, I burn, powerful yet controlled. A particular highlight is O ruddier than the cherry which receives a terrific performance from Sherratt. Such flexibility from such a deep powerful voice is impressive.
Both Sherratt and Bern know how to bring recitative to life in Whither, fairest, art thou running and Damon’s aria, Would you gain the tender creature, is beautifully done by Nathan Vale as is his aria Consider, fond shepherd.
When Jeni Bern, Benjamin Hulett and Brindley Sherratt come together for The flocks shall leave the mountains, the three voices blend well. Acis’ short recitative, Help! Galatea, is tenderly done by Jeni Bern.
The great chorus, Mourn, all ye muses, is terrific with the Christ Church Cathedral Choir and the Oxford Philomusica on top form.
Jeni Bern is terrific in the chorus, Galatea, must my Acis still bemoan, singing brilliantly around the interspersions from the choir. She brings sensitivity and beauty to the aria Heart, the seat of soft delight with beautiful accompaniment rom the orchestra. There is a fine end to the work with the choir and orchestra in the chorus, Galatia, dry thy tears.
I much enjoyed this performance. The recording made in the church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford is excellent and there are notes and full texts.
Purists may only look to Handel’s original of which there are a number of recordings. However, to do so is to deprive oneself of some fine music making in what is after all a historical part of Handel performance practice albeit by another generation.