New Classical Tracks: From Heavenly Harmony

by Julie Amacher
December 18, 2012

Listen New Classical Tracks: From Heavenly Harmony
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Handel: Song for St. Cecilia - Richard Neville Towle & Ludus Baroque (Delphian 34110) (Courtesy of Delphian)

Richard Neville Towle is the director of music of Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh, which sits between the castle at one end of the royal mile and the Palace of Holyrood at the other. This majestic church is also where Towle's conducts the period instrument ensemble that he founded in 1997, Ludus Baroque.

"It has a wonderful acoustic," he explains, "It's the sort of acoustic where you can play a flute note or sing a high soprano note and it just floats away, it floats up into the acoustic. So it's a lovely place to make music and quite an atmospheric place to listen to music." This enchanting place was also the setting for the newest release by Ludus Baroque featuring Handel's Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 7; his miniature cantata, Look Down, Harmonious Saint, and the Song for St. Cecilia's Day honoring the patron saint of music and musicians.

"We are exploring Handel's lesser known works," says Towle. "Handel is a wonderful composer who has a great gift for working with language. In both our first disc, Alexander's Feast, and this second disc, A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, he works on poems by the great English poet John Dryden. And the words alone capture the most fantastic atmosphere. For example, the Song for St. Cecilia's Day, written in 1687, begins with the words: 'From harmony, from heavenly harmony this universal frame began when nature, underneath a heap of jarring atoms lay and could not heave her head, the tuneful voice was heard from high — arise, ye more than dead.'

"Then it goes on to tell the story through the various instruments that Dryden describes and that Handel uses so vividly to bring the music alive. And then right at the end, we hear that St. Cecilia herself hears the music... we hear 'the bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher, when to her organ vocal breath was given an angel heard and straight appeared' — listen to this line — 'mistaking earth for heaven.' "

Ed Lyon is the tenor soloist on Song for St. Cecilia's Day, and the mini-cantata, Look Down, Harmonious Saint. Richard Neville Towles really loves working with this Baroque tenor. "But of course making music is an exchange of ideas. And when Ed first came along, his and my ideas were so... not dissimilar, but... they complemented each other but were different. And Ed was able to take the ideas that we discussed as a group and immediately, like a magician, turn them from ideas into what actually worked. So I thought of him as a magician right from that first moment we worked together. And you can hear from his work on the disc how astonishingly articulate he is. He has such clarity of diction and relishes the words themselves. And of course that wonderful voice — so he's got that tremendous instrument. But the intelligence and the magicianship to bring the whole text so alive. So he's a great storyteller."

Richard Neville Towle loves everything about Handel's Song for St. Cecilia's day. When pressed, he does admit he has a favorite section. "For me, I think the 'sacred organ' has to be the moment that I treasure most. The girl Jan Waterfield who plays the organ is another magician. Continuo players, the organ and the cello who provide the sort of bedrock for the group, are of course fundamental, they're vital. They are the inner heart, the inner drive, the inner pulse of the music making. But one very rarely hears them on their own. And I think in the 'sacred organ,' when you just hear Jan improvising around these very simple chords that Handel has given her, it draws us in to a world of utter magic from which we can then leap away for that fantastic final chorus."

One of my favorite sections is the final chorus. Towles says what Handel is asking for in that final chorus is actually tough to pull off, "Because he's asking for a declamatory soprano, almost hymn-like, to set the scene. And then the choir and the orchestra echo these first what appear to be quite... quite almost reverential, almost hymn-like, solemn statements. I took the view that it doesn't want to sit back on itself. It doesn't want to sound sluggish and slow and pompous but it wants to move forward. And the whole chorus just takes off, doesn't it? I mean, it just goes for it."