The 1744/45 season marked a watershed for Handel.
Since returning from his foray to Dublin (when he gave the first
performance of ‘Messiah’) he had distanced himself from all operatic
activity and concentrated on his oratorio seasons. For the 1744/45
season he took on the King’s Theatre for the whole season and
promised 24 concerts. In fact, he was only able to give 16 and
only gave those with difficulty. Handel’s public was finding it
difficult to accept the vein of dramatic oratorios that he was
producing. It is events like this that make you realise that Handel,
though subject to the vagaries of public taste, could quite firmly
write the music that he want. ‘Semele’ in the 1743/44 season was
followed by ‘Hercules’ and ‘Belshazzar’ in the 1744/45 season.
After this season, Handel would not attempt anything so ambitious
again. He return to just Lenten seasons of oratorio and following
the 1745 rebellion he produced a series of oratorios that could
be termed jingoistic, fully responsive to the change in public
mood, but in no sense were they fully worked out dramas.
‘Belshazzar’ was to be the last oratorio that
Handel wrote with Charles Jennens, the librettist of ‘Messiah’.
Though their relationship was touchy and they went through periods
of not speaking to each other, Jennens knew how to write a tautly
dramatic libretto which appealed to Handel and drew out his best
music. The tautness of ‘Belshazzar’ probably owes something to
the fact that Handel had to cut the work whilst writing it. His
first draft of Act I would have led to a mammoth work and his
extensive but subtle cuts have probably been beneficial to the
work. In ‘Belshazzar’ there are few, if any, passages where you
feel Handel’s attention wandering, but this is a problem in the
oratorios written after 1745 to less sophisticated libretti by
Despite the name oratorio, ‘Belshazzar’ is a
fully fledged dramatic work like ‘Hercules’ and ‘Semele’. Handel
and Jennens liberally sprinkled the word book with scenic descriptions
and Winton Dean has argued that some scenes only make complete
sense if they are staged. Jennens took the basic story from the
Book of Daniel, but his libretto synthesises information from
other sources such as Herodotus and Xenophon. Using this material
he creates such vivid characters as Nitocris, Belshazzar’s mother
with her fine opening solo reflecting on the rise and fall of
empires, lamenting doomed Babylon, her son heedless of her warnings.
‘Belshazzar’ does not seem to be as popular as
‘Saul’, but it has been quite lucky in its recording and Trevor
Pinnock’s recording from 1990 remains a touchstone. The keen eyed
will spot from the cover of this Brilliant Classics recording
that it is not completely standard. This is a recording from the
late 1970s sung in German. Unfortunately, Brilliant have not provided
a libretto, just a detailed plot summary.
From the opening notes of the overture, it is
clear that this is going to be big-band Handel. The performance
from the Kammerorchester Berlin, is big boned but not without
a sense of crispness and style and the resulting sound is more
than adequate. The string tone is rich, but not overly laden with
vibrato and they play in a fine sprung and shapely manner.
As Nitocris, Renate Frank-Reinecke, is a fine
stylist and her opening scene is most moving. She has the sort
of laser-sharp delivery that puts me in mind of the younger Felicity
Palmer. It is not a sound that will be to everyone’s taste but
to my ears she is very effective. As Daniel, Gisela Pohl sings
with firmness and a lack of too feminine a tone that is entirely
admirable. She is a good Handelian stylist so it is unfortunate
that she seems not to bring out the mystical side of Daniel’s
character, creating a rather brisk businesslike character.
Gobrias, the Babylonian turncoat mourning the
loss of his son to Belshazzar’s excesses, is sung by Hermann Christian
Poster. He is a bass who brings to the role a truly admirable
firmness and lack of bluster. His solos are a joy to listen to.
In Act 1 his companion is Cyrus, the King of the Persians. Ute
Frank-Reinecke unfortunately rather lacks clarity in her passagework
and this mars what would otherwise be a promising Cyrus. He is
one of those good characters who can be difficult to bring off.
In the title role, this recording has the great
benefit of having Peter Schreier. He provides a neat character
sketch of swaggering Belshazzar and proves him to be a fine Handelian
Act 1 concludes with Belshazzar feasting using
the Jewish temple vessels, Nitocris’s remonstrations culminating
in the fine duet for Belshazzar and Nitocris (with Schreier and
Frank-Reinecke on their best form), and the final, shocked chorus
of the Jews. Though Frank-Reinecke is a little disappointing in
Nitocris’s final aria in this Act.
The choir are less impressive in the opening
chorus of Act 2 where they seem to be technically under par. But
by the time we come to the scene of the writing on the wall, both
chorus and Schreier combine to produce a spine-tinglingly vivid
performance. Unfortunately this very vividness puts the performance
by Trekel-Burkhardt distinctly in the shade. Though Frank-Reinecke
is wonderfully moving in her final appeal to Belshazzar,‘O blick
auf deiner Mutter Gram’.
The choir, the Berliner Singakademie, sound bigger
than we are used to now. But they sing with a good focused sound
and a neat sense of line. Responsive to the rhythms of Handel’s
music and not overburdened with vibrato, they are a great improvement
on the chorus on the Johannes Somary recordings which Brilliant
have issued as earlier volumes in this series.
The Kammerorchester Berlin under Dietrich Knothe
give a well sprung performance and whilst speeds are sometimes
on the leisurely side, the orchestra never sounds lacklustre or
I would not normally recommend a foreign language
performance of a Handel oratorio. But this one, at super-budget
price, makes a fine starting point for exploring Handel’s wonderfully
dramatic work. The lack of a libretto is a problem, but the enterprising
will be able to find one on the web. For those who already have
a ‘Belshazzar’, then this one is worth investigating for the performances
of Peter Schreier and Renate Frank-Reinecke.