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S & H Concert Review

G.F. Handel, ‘Joshua’ The King’s Consort, Robert King, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 28th January 2003. (ME)


Robert King’s recording of ‘Joshua’ (Hyperion) must surely be regarded as one of the greatest of all interpretations of Handel on disc: it has, in the three principals, James Bowman, Emma Kirkby and John Mark Ainsley, an Othniel, Achsah and Joshua who reach every possible pinnacle of the art of baroque singing, and it is directed with such grace and affection that any other version would find it hard to equal – even, as it turned out, another one by the King’s Consort, featuring another three of the leading Handel singers of our time. No matter, for who can possibly complain at the chance to hear this wonderful work in London, performed with such joy and expertise – well, I suppose you could complain if you had some sort of politically correct agenda to deal with, since the story is not exactly redolent of the peaceful virtues – but then, neither are ‘Les Troyens’ or, for that matter, ‘Die Walkure.’

‘It’s the singing, stupid’ – and we had some wonderful singing on this occasion. Paul Agnew is not exactly the fulfilment of anyone’s dream of an inspiring commander, since his voice is small in scale and unheroic in style, but he makes up for this with his sensitivity to language and nuance, his poetic use of recitative and his fluency, all truly in the Handelian mode. One might wish for less of the feeling of a middle manager giving his underlings a pep talk during ‘Behold, my Friends’ and ‘With redoubled rage return’ was not quite showy enough, but ‘Oh! thou bright orb’ and ‘Let all the seed of Abrah’m now prepare’ were object lessons in how to bring such awkward sentiments to life, and how to shape and project such music. ‘Haste, Israel haste’ may not have had ideal firmness in all the runs, but it was still sensitive and highly dramatic: those who enjoyed Mr. Agnew’s performance but have not previously heard the work would certainly be enthralled by John Mark Ainsley’s extremely showy, fiery singing of the part on the aforementioned disc – both adjectives used in a complimentary sense of course.

I generally prefer a counter-tenor to a contralto in such roles as Othniel, but on this occasion Hilary Summers almost convinced me that her type of voice is perfect for the part. Tall, stately and elegant of bearing, she made the ‘conqu’ring hero’ into a real person, victorious in love as in war. I don’t think that even Bowman managed to move me quite so much at such lines as ‘Direct me, Love, to Achsah, blooming maid’ where the phrasing was simply perfection, and her singing of the demanding ‘Heroes when with glory burning’ and ‘Place danger around me’ was impressively virtuosic.

Her beloved was sung by the blessedly ubiquitous Carolyn Sampson, whose particular forte is to make her soprano sound as though she is constantly smiling. Her voice does not quite have the brilliance of Emma Kirkby’s but it is warmer and sweeter, and although her divisions are not quite so breathtakingly sharp as those of the older soprano, her technical proficiency is undoubted: she was more than equal to ‘Oh Had I Jubal’s Lyre’ and her ‘Hark! ‘tis the linnet and the thrush’ neatly avoided the saccharine with its exact phrasing and fluent diction, eloquently accompanied by Katy Bircher’s flute obbligato.

I found Peter Harvey’s bass a little on the subdued side for Caleb, although he was convincing in ‘With thee, great leader’ – I felt that he needed encouragement to ‘sing out’ a little more. The solemn aria ‘Shall I in Mamre’s fertile plain’ was nevertheless very finely sing, its long phrases given the requisite authority. Julie Cooper’s Angel gave real presence to this short but difficult part, with radiant clarity as well as the required ‘dignity of mien.’ Ms Cooper ‘came from the choir,’ and what a strong body of voices this is; apart from a little drifting during ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes,’ we were treated to genuinely impressive choral singing, whether in the hushed awe of ‘Behold! the list’ning sun the voice obeys’ or the blustering force of ‘We with redoubled rage return.’

After one or two recent experiences of baroque music it was such a joy to attend this performance: nothing gimmicky, no inappropriate voices or ridiculous affectations, just one of the greatest works by one of the greatest composers, delivered with the assurance of long acquaintance and real understanding. True, the same conductor’s recording remains definitive, but to even come so near that achievement is excellence indeed.

Melanie Eskenazi

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