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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

George Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Gideon – An Oratorio in Three Parts complied by John Christopher Smith (1712-1795)
Barbara Hannigan, Linda Perillo, Nicola Wemyss – Sopranos
David Cordier – Countertenor, Knut Schoch – Tenor, Stephen MacLeod - Bass
Junge Kantorei
Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra/Joachim Carlos Martini
Live rec 8 June 2003, Kloster Eberach, Rheingau, Germany DDD
NAXOS 8.557312-13 [75.27 + 76.26]

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After Handel’s death in 1759 his assistant, the younger John Christopher Smith, continued the tradition of regular oratorio performances, in some cases compiling new works from the Handel manuscripts he had inherited. The oratorio Gideon, first performed ten years after Handel’s death, sets a new libretto by Handel’s former collaborator Thomas Morell. The story deals with Gideon’s destruction of the idol Baal, the defeat of the Midianites and the miracle of the fleece. In this it bears close resemblance to many of Handel’s other oratorio themes. The music used draws heavily on some of Handel’s finest early works, with a lesser number of elements (principally Handelian recitatives) by John Christopher Smith himself. Smith’s close association with Handel certainly gave him a sure grasp of the master’s manner of word setting, even if Smiths own musical gifts were slight.

Among Smith’s principal sources for the arias and choruses are the great psalm settings Handel wrote in Rome as a young man; Nisi Dominus and Dixit Dominus. The latter work in particular has become very well known in our own times, but would not have been so familiar to the staunchly protestant 18th century London audience. Smith could have relied on a certain coup aspect when presenting this wonderfully vigorous music with English words and a good Old Testament story, and indeed it makes the transition extremely well. The first chorus sets the manner, using the marvellous Dominus a dextris movement of the Dixit Dominus and it was no hard guess to work out that the final chorus of the oratorio was likely to be the splendid closing Gloria Patri of the same psalm. Indeed, so it turns out, transformed into a Wonderous are Thy works, O Lord! with the same Amen as the original model. These contrafacta give Gideon an odd sense of familiarity, disturbed only by the occasional realisation that the movements are not in the familiar order.

The recording is a live performance, with studiously avoided audience applause, recorded on a single occasion. As such the quality is commendable. The singers are uniformly excellent, although there are a few quibbles. The high countertenor David Cordier (not nearly as well known in his native England as he should be, having made his career largely in Germany) is one of the few countertenors capable of handling the high soprano castrato roles of Handel’s operas. However, some of the writing here stretches his lower limits somewhat uncomfortably. The tenor Knut Schoch sings the title role with generally excellent English, although there are occasions where the vowel sounds of English do seem to cause his vocal sound to take on a hard edge. However, these must be viewed as minor quibbles in a context that is usually excellent. Certainly the three sopranos are consistently admirable, especially the delightfully piquant voice of Barbara Hannigan – a voice that this reviewer would take out for dinner any time. The Swiss bass Stephen MacLeod, although having fairly little to do in the various roles of a Prophet, a Priest of Baal and Joash (Gideon’s father) sings them all with appropriately Handelian gravitas and a consistently rich vocal quality, but never lacking clarity or focus in the runs.

The singers are supported by imaginative continuo, making much use of the theorbo, (about which one does wonder slightly, given the 1769 date of the work. This seems rather too late for theorbo use in performance, although obviously not for the music itself, mostly composed decades earlier, but Smith’s venues in late 1760s London would presumably have been much larger than those of Rome’s private apartments in which Handel was working in the 1720s, which does argue against the viability of the theorbo, as opposed to a decent sized harpsichord or an organ) and amongst the players the oboes and the trumpets and drums are excellent. The string band of the Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra is not of the calibre of the better known Freiburg or Amsterdam Baroque Orchestras. This is not to say that there is not quality here – the playing is certainly sprightly, and often expressively lyrical in the slow movements. The slight grievance comes in the blending of the upper strings. Too often there is just a little too much roughness in the edge of the sound. This is an aspect that need not exist given careful orchestral rehearsal, but one does get the feeling that the principal rehearsal time is devoted to the chorus (which is very competent and frequently exciting), and the band are assumed to be able to manage. This is probably perfectly true, but does make the distinction between those baroque orchestras that are made of fine players, and those that are themselves fine orchestras. The Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra could take themselves a level higher.

Given, however, that there is no other recording of this work available, one cannot be too picky about the niceties of string sound polish, and as this Naxos release represents the usual excellent value for money of this label it is hard not to be positive in recommending this Handel rarity. It is an enjoyable performance of (often) familiar music, given an interesting new flavour.

Peter Wells

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

 



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