St Cecilia first appears in literature in a medieval collection of tales of early Christian martyrs who met gory deaths; at this stage there is little in her story to suggest a connection with music, but by the middle of the fifteenth century she had been accredited with the invention of the organ and was thus adopted as the patron saint of music. Over the succeeding centuries, the annual celebration of her patronage (falling on the supposed date of her martyrdom, 22 November) inspired composers to dazzling new heights of creativity. At the 1739 festival Handel’s dazzling Ode to St Cecilia (setting the famous text by Dryden) presented enthralled London audiences with chorus, top-notch soloists and a splendid array of obbligato instruments – and some of Handel’s finest music. For this new recording, Carolyn Sampson and James Gilchrist fully rise to the occasion, supported by choir and The King’s Consort in sparkling form.
Paired with the seldom-heard setting for soprano and tenor Cecilia, volgi un sguardo (a Dryden setting from 1736 written as a showcase for the skills of Handel’s two Italian opera stars), this generously filled new recording is a must!