Robert King has recorded many works by Handel with
the King’s Consort, and this new recording of the little-known Choice
of Hercules is a welcome addition to their discography. This work,
one of the few "oratorios" that Handel composed around a non-biblical
subjects, was born from an aborted project that he undertook in 1749-50:
he was working on a music for a play, by Scottish writer Tobias Smollett,
on ‘Alceste’. Rather than being an opera, this was to be in the style
of Purcell’s semi-operas. However, after rehearsals began, the author
and promoter fell out, cancelling the project, and leaving Handel with
a good amount of fine music and nothing to do with it. Since he never
wasted such efforts, he reused some of it, and added new numbers, in
creating the one-act dramatic cantata The Choice of Hercules.
Originally performed as "an additional New Act" after Alexander’s
Feast, the work was later inserted between the two sections of this
work and called an "interlude".
In any case, we have here a fine small "oratorio",
if one can call it that. It does indeed follow the oratorio form, though
it is a secular subject, that of Hercules having to choose between Vice
and Virtue. At times rousing and energetic, with horns filling out the
orchestra, at times more dramatic and emotional, this piece comes as
a surprise. Such a compact work, containing all the elements for which
Handel’s operas and oratorios are known, is a pure delight. At less
than 50 minutes long, this is a brief story, but it seems that Handel’s
disappointment at the cancellation of ‘Alceste’ pushed him to do his
absolute best with this music.
Hercules appears only a few times in this work, oddly
enough, not singing until the 14th of 24 numbers. Robin Blaze, a fine
counter-tenor with a rich experience singing Handel, is excellent, his
crystalline voice fitting perfectly with the slow, subtle aria Yet,
can I hear that dulcet lay. His mastery of vibrato - he uses it
judiciously, and only as an ornament, unlike many other counter-tenors
- and his pure tone make this aria the high point of the recording.
(Blaze should really record more Handel…) The two female soloists Susan
Gritton and Alice Coote are also excellent, and tenor Charles Daniels
is fine as well.
In addition to the Choice of Hercules, we have
a short anthem by Maurice Greene, Hearken unto me, ye holy children.
This work is not at the same level as the Handel - the music sounds,
at times, like church hymns, but it does feature one excellent moment,
the duet Therefore shall he receive a glorious kingdom; Robin
Blaze and Charles Daniels blend perfectly in this piece.
As usual with the King’s Consort recordings, the playing
of the musicians is tight and balanced, with a fine equilibrium between
soloists, chorus and orchestra.