George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Alexander’s Feast (1736)
Gerlinde Sämann (soprano); Knut Schoch (tenor); Klaus Mertens (bass); Junge Kantorei
Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra/Joachim Carlos Martini
rec. live, Kloster Eberbach, Rheingau, Germany, 11 May 2008
NAXOS 8.572224 [79:49]

While it’s late for the Handel Anniversary year, this Feast is very welcome. This is the latest instalment in Martini’s Naxos Handel series from Frankfurt: other releases include Solomon, Hercules, Tobit and Semele. It won’t please Anglophone purists but I found much of it very enjoyable.

The disc gains hugely from being a live performance, though the audience is so well behaved that you would never guess it. There is a good sense of to-and-fro and there’s creative energy coming from the audience: never did it feel stilted. Above all, Martini’s direction is flexible and always interesting. He is helped by a band that responds convincingly to every nuance. The juicy orchestral sounds add an entirely distinctive air to this performance, something I was very happy to live with. Timotheus’ harp solo in track 4 and the exciting figurations when the king “seizes a flambeau” are only two examples. Martini propels the action forwards so that the pace never flags and attention never wavers.

Happily, the solo singing is just as good. Gerlinde Sämann’s soprano is bright and clear, almost in the Emma Kirkby category. She responds well to the inflections (and frequent repetitions) in the text, such as in track 19 (The Prince, unable to conceal his pain). Klaus Mertens is a steady, dependable bass, who manages beauty in the stiller moments but is vigorous and agile for Timotheus’ call of revenge. Knut Schoch produces lovely tone, but he falls prey to the set’s greatest weakness: the frequently poor pronunciation of English. He is the first to sound heavily accented, but far more serious is the laxity of the chorus. Listening to them sounds like wading through treacle at times, with too many words lost in the aural fog. This is a terrible shame as their sound is quite attractive, though no-one would describe it as lithe. For that reason I can’t really recommend this disc, especially in light of the strong competition. You don’t need to have a group of native English speakers for this music but you do need to have clearly audible words which match the transparent orchestral textures. With this set I needed a text to follow, and matters were made worse by the fact that Naxos do not provide one. Not all is lost in a worthy performance, but this shouldn’t be your final choice for Alexander’s Feast.

Simon Thompson

see also review by John Sheppard