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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Brilliant Classics

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Belsazar (Belshazzar): Oratorio in three acts for soloists, choir and orchestra
Sung in German
Belshazzar – Peter Schreier (tenor)
Nitocris – Renate Frank-Reinecke (soprano)
Cyrus – Ute Trekel-Burkhardt (alto)
Daniel – Gisela Pohl (alto)
Gobrias – Hermann Christian Polster (bass)
Arioch – Joachim Vogt (tenor)
A messenger – Günther Beyer (bass)
Berliner Singakademie
Kammerorchester Berlin/Dietrich Knothe
Recorded 1976 (Licensed from Edel Classics)
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99777-8/10 [3CDs: 56.30+53.06+54.31]

 

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 Thomas Morrell.

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 stylist.

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 sluggish.

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.

Robert Hugill

 



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