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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Joshua (1748)
Achsah, Angel - Miriam Allan (Soprano); Othniel - David Allsopp (Countertenor); Joshua - Mark LeBrocq (Tenor); Caleb - James Rutherford (Bass)
Maulbronner Kammerchor; Hannoversche Hofkapelle/Jürgen Budday
rec. concert hosted by Klosterkonzerte Maulbronn at the UNESCO World Heritage Site
Maulbronn Monastery, Germany, 19-20 May 2007. DDD.
Booklet with notes in German and English and libretto in English.
K&K VERLAGSANSTALT KuK07 LC11277 [72:25+60:17]

Experience Classicsonline

 

Do we need another version of Joshua when there is such a splendid version already in the catalogue? (James Bowman, Emma Kirkby, John Mark Ainsley et al with the King’s Consort on Hyperion CDA66461/2 – see reference to this recording in review of a live King’s Consort performance.) If this new recording had been offered at significantly below full price, the answer might have been more clear-cut; as it is, the recommended price of £22, is close to the price at which many dealers are offering the Hyperion.

The presentation is certainly up to full-price standard with a colourful booklet, little if any inferior to the Hyperion. I can, for example, do no better to describe the raison d’être of this version than to quote K&K’s own note from the booklet:


This recording is part of a cycle of old testament oratorios by G. F. Handel and is one of the many concerts performed at Maulbronn monastery over the past years. The series combines authentically performed baroque oratorios with the optimal acoustics and atmosphere of this unique monastic church. This ideal location demands the transparency of playing and the interpretive unveiling of the rhetoric intimations of the composition, which is especially aided by the historically informed performance. The music is exclusively performed on reconstructed historical instruments, which are tuned to the pitch customary in the composers [sic] lifetime (a = 415 Hz).

Omit the loaded adjectives, such as ‘optimal’ and ‘unique’ and you have a clear mission statement in an idiomatic English translation, if a little wordy and Germanic in tone.

Some information on the circumstances in which Handel composed Joshua might have been welcome. Newcomers might have liked to know, for example, how the patriotic mood following the suppression of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 was reflected in the oratorios of the period, Judas Maccabæus, Alexander Balus and Joshua, with the rousing chorus See, the conqu’ring hero comes, first appearing in Joshua, which later become more famously attached to revivals of Judas Maccabæus and later resurfaced as the tune of an Easter hymn.

Earlier recordings in this series have included such luminaries as Emma Kirkby (Jephtha – see review) and Nancy Argenta (Saul – see review, Solomon – see review), though the general opinion has been that these K&K live recordings have not shown them at their best. Some of those earlier recordings have been devoid of libretto, so I am pleased to report that the omission has been put right. I might still prefer to print out the libretto from the website, however, as the yellow-on-dark-blue used throughout the booklet is hardly easy on the eyes, especially for those of us with presbyopia. (An alternative source for the libretto is the Stanford website.) The poetry is printed as poetry throughout and there is an odd typo here and there (bought for brought and an orthographically impossible her’s, for example).

Whilst I am grumbling about the booklet, let me point out that Mark LeBrocq can hardly be a graduate of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge – as a graduate of St Catherine’s at the ‘other place’, I happen to know that the Cambridge college mis-spells the name as ‘Catharine’. And who is this person ‘Hadyn’ to whom the notes refer several times? Nor can the notes decide whether the character is called Othaniel or Othniel.

Those earlier recordings have sometimes been cut in order to fit them onto two CDs; the present recording presents the complete 1748 version. I have no reason to doubt this claim, especially as the K&K text corresponds with the Stanford version, with slight differences in numbering of the sections.

The Hannoversche Hofkapelle play on authentic instruments, as witness the valveless trumpet clearly visible in one of the photographs in the booklet. They give a measured performance of the Overture – stylish enough, but their period-performance credentials are not especially in evidence here. Their big moment is the Solemn March during the circumvention of the ark, at the beginning of Act II. Here they try too hard to be solemn and drag out the music interminably – and the wind intonation is not exactly spot-on, reminiscent of the early days of authentic performance when wind instruments were routinely out of tune. Their two flourishes of warlike sounds on the second CD are much more effective.

The Maulbronner Kammerchor give a sprightly performance of the opening chorus but their heavily accented pronunciation meant that I hardly recognised what they were singing as English – redolent of the awful accents of the German military in a bad war movie – and had to look at the libretto to catch the words. The tenors and basses render their English words slightly better than the female voices, but this opening chorus hardly augurs well. By their second appearance their diction appears to have improved – perhaps they just needed to get into gear by hearing the English-speaking soloists? – and they give an impressive account of the passage over the Jordan, well supported by the accompaniment. They are mostly well balanced against the orchestra.

By the time we come to the victorious chorus marking the destruction of Jericho the Kammerchor are in fine voice; the lively power of this chorus contrasts strongly with the dreary performance of the preceding Solemn March. This chorus has to be dramatic, since it is the only way in which Handel can depict the fall of the great city and it is dramatically rendered here. The Kammerchor also round off the first CD with a rousing account of Thy mercy did with Israel dwell.

The mood at the beginning of the second CD is much more subdued; Caleb and the Chorus capture the feeling of dejection here well without overdoing the effect. The Chorus at the end of Act II, Behold the list’ning sun, and again at the beginning of Act III, Hail! Mighty Joshua, round off the one act and begin the next in good form.

They begin their big moment in See the conqu’ring hero comes with power in reserve, power which is well brought out in the reprise, though the poor diction is here again in evidence to spoil the effect. The final chorus suffers from the same problem of diction, though the effect here is less harmful and they provide a generally effective send-off to the oratorio.

The soloists are all native English speakers, but Mark LeBrocq sounds rather stilted in his first recitative, as if he has been put off by the chorus. Otherwise he makes a good impression from the start – but why did Handel make Joshua wait so long for his first air? By track 7 he sounds much less awkward, though he could, perhaps, have sounded a little more authoritative as he gives directions for the selection of the judges.

When Joshua finally gets his chance to shine, LeBrocq gives a good rendition of the accompagnato So long the memory shall last. A stylish orchestral lead-in is followed by a fine account of While Kedron’s brook, where he takes every opportunity to relish the poetic language which the librettist (probably Morrell) has given him. By thinking himself into the part, his singing is totally appropriate to his role at that point. In his recitative which opens Act II, however, in which he proclaims the fate of Jericho, he sounds less convincing.

Joshua’s recit Whence this dejection effectively changes the mood of dejection at the start of CD2; he and the chorus offer a lively account of With redoubled rage, though leBrocq is balanced slightly backward against the chorus and orchestra.

As Caleb, James Rurtherford gets an early chance to shine with O first in wisdom and he makes a very good fist of this air. Caleb then has to wait until Act II before he gets another recit and air, The walls are levell’d ... See, see, the raging flames. I didn’t find him as impressive here, his fairly light bass voice not really well suited to the apocalyptic utterance The fatal day of wrath of come, which he delivers in a rather matter-of-fact manner, though he rounds off the air with a convincing proud Jericho hath met her doom.

Rutherford more than atones for his intrusive r in Jehova-r-is the word (CD2, tr.12) with his beautifully contemptuous delivery of the word dastard (CD2, tr.16). His rendition of Shall I in Mamre’s fertile plain shows that he is capable of some very effective quiet singing and reminds us that it is not only in the moments of exultation that Handel’s genius strikes the right note.

Miriam Allan as Achsah has a pleasant, light-toned voice. I was not surprised to discover that she was a graduate of Emma Kirkby’s master class. Sometimes she is little too lightweight and is slightly overwhelmed by the accompaniment. More seriously, she does not get enough rejoicing into her first air, where her account of Who will not on Jordan smile, releas’d from bondage on the Nile? sounds rather unsmiling. Dramatic involvement can be just as important in oratorio as in opera and I did not feel she was quite enough into her role here. Perhaps a livelier direction from Jürgen Budday would have helped her to smile a little more.

In her brief role as the Angel, too, Allan is not quite ideal: she does not sound authoritative enough in her recitative. She summons more energy in her accompagnato Leader of Israel but even here she does not exult as she should at the envisaged fate of Jericho. It is left to Joshua in his ensuing recit and air to convey the determination and menace which are lacking in the angel’s voice.

In Act II, Allen sings very effectively in As cheers the sun and Happy, oh thrice happy we. In her big Act III aria, Oh! Had I Jubal’s lyre she finally hits the right note – this really is a soloist with Miriam’s tuneful voice, of which she sings.

David Allsop (Othniel) is billed on the K&K website as a countertenor and in the booklet as an alto. Whichever you choose to call him, he has a powerful voice and is mostly well able to rise above the accompaniment without strain in a way which countertenors do not always find easy.

In Act II he sounds a little too unwarlike in Heroes when with glory burning and, to a lesser extent, in Nations who in future story. In Act III he sounds rather more psyched up in Place danger around me, though still more convincing in his assertions of love for Achsah than in his heroic protestations.

One wonders if the librettist and Handel were really interested in the drama of the fall of Jericho: the love affair between Othniel and Achsah seems to have interested Morrell much more and here both soloists sing well. The language of Othniel’s In these blest scenes is pure eighteenth-century pastoral, complete with ‘enamelle’d fields’ of an age before the Romantic poets began to see nature as it really is. Stilted though the diction is, Handel offers the opportunity for some really affective singing, well taken in Othniel’s Hail! Lovely virgin and even more so in Achsah’s Hark! ‘tis the linnet, both of which are excellently sung, the latter in Handels’s revised and expanded (1752?) version, the only variation from the 1748 text. The accompaniment to Achsah’s air is especially sensitive.

The duet between Achsah and Othniel, Our limpid streams is also effectively sung. Only after this pastoral interlude do we return with a flourish of trumpets to the martial theme, with Othniel marching off to win glory and to gain Caleb’s consent to his union with Achsah. Othniel’s recitative at least sounds like the utterance of someone setting off to conquer and the Chorus which rounds off Act I is also convincingly sung.

When Achsah joins her father Caleb in commenting on the fate of Jericho (To vanity and earthly Pride) Handel gives her a wistful rather than exultant air, a tone which Allan captures very effectively. If only Rutherford, as Caleb, had been more exultant in the preceding air, the contrast would have been very effective.

The Othniel/Achsah duet at the end of Act III is just as effective as in the Act II interlude.

The recording is more than acceptable, though a little heavy. No doubt the venue’s acoustic and difficulties of live recording are chiefly to blame, though the separate SATB strands in the choruses are very well captured spatially by the recording engineers.. The photographs in the booklet show a large array of microphones, which should have given the engineers opportunities to jiggle the balance, yet occasionally the soloists are not well balanced against the chorus and/or the orchestra. Perhaps a simpler microphone arrangement would have lightened the texture of the sound. The harpsichord and chamber organ are more evident in the photograph in the booklet than on the actual recording.

A generous number of tracks from the recording are available as MP3 previews on the K&K website, where you will also find all the material from the booklet, including the full libretto.

The notes do not give timings for the individual CDs but indicate an overall 147 minutes, which is somewhat longer than 132:42, the combination of the highest timings indicated by any of my CD players.

Had I been present at this performance, I am sure that I would have joined in the applause preserved at the end of the second CD – I certainly would not have felt short-changed. Had the Hyperion version not been available, I could have given this recording a more hearty welcome. As it is, the best outshines the mostly good.

Brian Wilson

 

 

 


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