> HANDEL Deborah 8554785-87 [RBr]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)

Deborah, Elizabeth Scholl (soprano)
Jael, Natacha Ducret (soprano)
Barak, Lawrence Zazzo (countertenor)
Sisera, Ewa Wolak (contralto)
Herald, Knut Schoch (tenor)
Abinoam, Jelle S. Draijer (baritone)
Junge Kantorei; Barokorchester Frankfurt/Joachim Carlos Martini
Recorded live May 1999 in the Kloster Eberbach, Germany
NAXOS 8.554785.87 3 CDs [162:24]


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Though described as an oratorio there is no difficulty in recognising this is, in essence, very like an opera. Written for London theatre audiences in 1733, it reflects the gradual replacement of the sacred oratorio, as developed in Italy and France, by a new, dramatic English form Ė a semi-staged work with a libretto derived from biblical sources, in this case the fourth chapter of the Book of Judges. Handel was clearly hoping to repeat the success of Rinaldo, his first opera written for London, with a suitably Protestant religious text. His librettist, Samuel Humphries, was a man of the theatre and well understood the Italianate operatic style then popular all over Europe. On his part Handel produced a well-upholstered score, making use of substantial instrumental resources, including two harpsichords and organ. Some idea of the haste with which Deborah was completed can be inferred by the appearance of elements from earlier works, such as the Chandos Anthems and Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. Handel was not averse to borrowing from his own compositions, but never sacrificed freshness and appropriateness. Hearing them in this context is like meeting old friends in new clothes.

Deborah was launched with a hundred performers, including 25 singers, at the Kingís Theatre in 1733, nine years before Messiah. It tells how Deborah, prophetess and judge of Israel, chooses Barak, son of Abinoam, to lead the people of Israel against their oppressors, the Canaanites. In a vision, she sees the death of Sisera, leader of the Canaanite army, at the hands of a woman. Jael comes to Deborah seeking a retreat from such violence, but Deborah, divinely inspired, sees him surrounded by angels and defended by the Lord. Abinoam, Barakís father, hears the people rejoicing at the calling of his son to lead the Israelites. A Herald is sent by Sisera with an offer of parley, which is rejected. As the Israelite army awaits the advance on Mount Tabor Sisera approaches, but is again dismissed. Barak and Deborah foresee victory and, following a "grand military symphony", this is achieved and the Israelites celebrate. Jael announces the death of Sisera, whom he killed by driving a nail through her temple as she slept in her tent. This rather unedifying plot is worked out in some detail. The oratorio has three substantial parts, each divided into a number of separate scenes.

Handelís music is, of course, full of fluent, tuneful invention, with fine set pieces for both chorus and soloists; yet, compared with his other sacred works, Deborah has its disappointments. It is long, involved and benefits little from a text not conspicuous for its poetic inspiration. In this live performance the occasional "noises off" are not obtrusive and the orchestral playing crisp and well focused. Unfortunately, in the vocal parts little can be done to overcome a hollow acoustic that is totally unsympathetic to the soloists, at times to an almost painful degree, and not improved by a serious imbalance in the ensemble in several places. My overall impression is one of insecurity and occasional insensitivity to the heroic nature of the score. In spite of its historical interest, this is therefore not a performance to be praised unreservedly, as can Handelís Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Verita with Martini, the same chorus and orchestra, Scholl and other soloists.

Roy D. Brewer

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