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Georg Friedrich HANDEL (1685-1759)
Belshazzar HWV 61 (1745)
Markus Bretscher, tenor
Simone Kermes, soprano
Christopher Robson, altus
Patrick van Goethem, altos
Franz-Josef Selig, bass
Frank Höndgen, baritone
Kölner Kammerchor - Collegium Cartusianum, Peter Neumann
Rec: Live recording, February 11, 2001, Trinitatiskirche, Köln, Germany.
MDG 332 1079-2 [157.48]
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Belshazzar is one of Handelís works that could be called a total failure at the time of its first performance. Premiered in 1745 to a nearly empty house, contemporary reports say that it was a disastrously bad performance. This oratorio never gained popularity in Handelís lifetime, and he only performed it twice after the first performance. Yet this is no minor work. Full of great Handelian arias, and stirring choral movements, this oratorio deserves to stand among his greatest works. Drama and energy play like a flame through the pages of this work. It has everything a Handel oratorio needs: tension, excitement, and attractive melodies.

Peter Neumann has recorded four oratorios for MDG, all with the same good sound, and with well chosen soloists. Soprano Simone Kernes is wonderful, and shines in several arias. Bass Franz-Josef Selig is of also strong, and his first solo aria, Oppressíd with never-ceasing grief, has that familiar sound that recalls so many other arias in Handelís oratorios. Alto Christopher Robson is a bit of a disappointment, however; his voice is weak and wispy, and not very attractive.

I am partial to the long, strophic arias that Handel includes in each of his oratorios. There is something about the way the music settles in over such a long time and develops in energy. Here, two such arias stand out, each over eight minutes long: O, sacred oracles of truth!, very well sung by alto Patrick van Goethem, and The leafy honours of the field, sung by Simone Kernes, who, unfortunately does not have enough chances to show her talent in this work. She has a magnificently pure voice, perfectly suited to the Handelian repertoire. It is a joy to listen to her in this music.

There are several magnificent, joyous choral movements, beginning with Behold, by Persiaís hero made. Pete Neumannís choirs are consistently good in all of his Handel recordings, and this work is no exception. This is all the more extraordinary when one considers the difficulty in obtaining such fine choral recordings, so well-balanced with the orchestra, in live performances.

Peter Neumann again shows that he is one of todayís finest interpreters of Handelís oratorios. With a bold approach, recording live performances to capture the energy of the stage, and MDGís trademark high-quality sound, this is a strong contender.

Kirk McElhearn

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