Handel wrote the masque Acis and Galatea in 1718 for
the Duke of Chandos to words by John Gay. Like the set of anthems
composed at that time for the Duke it required only modest forces
– five singers, four of whom sang the solo parts, two woodwind
players doubling oboes and recorders, two violins and continuo.
His later revisions did not fundamentally alter its scoring
even when more performers were involved. Mozart provided additional
accompaniments in 1788 for a performance in Vienna. In 1828
Mendelssohn, at that time a student at Berlin University, was
asked to make a version for a performance by the Singacademie.
It appears that it may not have been used by them and that the
first use of it may have been in London in 1869 conducted by
Sir Joseph Barnby. Novello’s vocal scores from that period offer
orchestral parts for sale of both Mozart’s and Mendelssohn’s
versions, as well as the composer’s original scoring but performances
of Mendelssohn’s version seem to have been rare.
In arranging the work Mendelssohn added a viola part and parts
for woodwind and brass, in part simply filling in the continuo
harmonies. However, like Mozart, he went further than that and
rewrote, shortened, occasionally extended and more often omitted
numbers. “Hush, ye pretty warbling choir” is subject to a simplification
of the figuration as well as additional woodwind lines. “Happy
we” is extended, and in several numbers the second violins are
given an independent line. Mendelssohn wrote for performance
in German but the original English text is used in this recording.
The present recording is described by the conductor as “a true
Oxford project”, with performers drawn from that city and making
use of the arranger’s manuscript now in the Bodleian Library.
In a word, it is magical. There is a freshness about this performance
which is wholly enchanting. The bass line is kept firm but light,
a crucial requirement in Handel, and rhythms bounce along, avoiding
any of the kind of heaviness fatal to the music. The soloists
are well chosen, all characterising well, especially Brindley
Sherratt as Polyphemus. The choir are admirable, even if their
pronunciation in “Oh the pleasure of the plains” suggests that
they are particularly well bred shepherds. This actually adds
to the listener’s pleasure in stressing the delicious artificiality
of the whole work. I have not heard the Oxford Philomusica before.
They are apparently a professional orchestra based in Oxford,
and as heard here they deserve a much wider audience.
Nimbus have done all in their hands that is necessary for the
listener’s pleasure by providing a model booklet, with a lengthy
essay by Peter Ward Jones, the complete English text and good
notes about the performers. With Mendelssohn’s help they manage
to get it all on a single disc. Obviously this disc supplements
rather than replaces versions of Handel’s original, but as a
change for the listener and
as a delightful work in its own right this is one of the most
enjoyable recordings I have heard for a long time.