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George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Nabal

An Oratorio or Sacred Drama in three acts compiled by John Christopher Smith (1712-1795)
Stephan MacLeod, bass
Maya Boog, soprano
Knut Schoch, tenor
Francine van der Heijden, soprano
Linda Perillo, soprano
Junge Kantorei
Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra conducted by Joachim Carlos Martini
Recorded Eberach Cloister, Eltville am Rhein June 2000
NAXOS 8.555276-77 [2 CDs 132í51]


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You doubtless wonít be alone in not having heard of Nabal, a three act Handelian oratorio first performed five years after the composerís death. It is not an original work by him at all but rather one of the many examples of pasticcio, in which a composite work is constructed through the use of excerpts from other works or indeed other composersí works. In Nabalís case the conduit was the eminently practical John Christopher Smith, son of Handelís principal copyist, who had, when a boy of twelve, taken harpsichord lessons from Handel. In 1750 Smith helped the ailing composer with performances of his oratorios and was himself a valued musician, being organist and choirmaster at the Foundling Hospital. After Handelís death he led an annual performance of Messiah in his memory and subsequently went on to work with Garrick, collaborating on three operas together.

The pasticcio suited eighteenth century entrepreneurial spirit very nicely; it satisfied the continued thirst for oratorio rendered problematic by the unavoidable absence of the formís principal producer in London. Handelís death certainly didnít spell the end of Handelian oratorio. The enterprising Smith, after a period of retrenchment and manuscript searching, joined up with Thomas Morell to create new works Ė Rebecca and Nabal were the first fruits of their collaboration and both had their premieres on 16th March 1764. Nabal received a further performance five days later but itís likely that it has never been heard since, at least not publicly. Morell had written the libretti for some of Handelís greatest works Ė Judas Maccabaeus, Theodora, Jeptha and others Ė and he wrote a text drawn from Samuel 1:25, one that fitted pre-existing music from a wide variety of source material: operas, oratorios, anthems and cantatas. The recitatives are probably the work of Smith himself. The booklet covers very well the attribution of source material noting, where known, the original work from which Smith derived the music and upon which Morellís new text was grafted. In this kind of work one is constantly dimly aware of a half recognised melody - and in the light of Handelís own borrowings and self-borrowings the sense of absorption, digestion and renewal takes on a new form.

The performance is neat and conscientious, sometimes more. Tenor Knut Schochís English is strongly accented and he has a rather hollow quality to his tone and nothing glamorous about it. He makes a real meal of the runs in the Third Part air Lovely beauty, and struggles with the top of his voice here and elsewhere. But he is an intelligent and understanding musician. Francine van der Heijden has a sure instinct for Handelian line, great clarity and security of register Ė I particularly admired her negotiation of the air The lord, our guide derived from Muzio Scevola; a fine and valuable voice for the Baroque literature. As for Nabal himself Stephan MacLeod has a notably well modulated bass though one that can tend to bark in the higher register Ė as he does in Still fill the bowl. Linda Perillo, as the shepherd, is a playful and dramatically inclined soprano but her production is uneven and can tend toward the erratic; in her aria Gay and light as yonder sheep she negotiates her divisions reasonably well but at 1í22 engages in some not especially attractive gurgling. By contrast she is much more effective and successful, dramatically and musically, when floating her voice. She is a most interesting singer and itís to be hoped that something can be done to sort out her register breaks. The choir sounds rather distant and diffuse; occasionally individual voices can be heard, strands not ideally blended. The small orchestra meanwhile is spirited and alert - nice string articulation in the instrumental gavotte of the First Part Ė and take sensible tempi directed by Joachim Carlos Martini though to my ears the chorus By slow degrees the wrath of God is not well sustained at this slow tempo. Nevertheless this is an honourable presentation of a work, the problematical and artificial nature of which means that recordings will be few and far between.

Jonathan Woolf


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