Handel: Alexander’s Feast
George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Alexander’s Feast HWV75 (1736) [96:01]
The Choice of Hercules HWV69 (1750) [52:01]
Helen Donath (soprano); Robert Tear (tenor); Sally Burgess (soprano); Thomas Allen (baritone); Pleasure – Heather Harper (soprano); Virtue – Helen Watts (mezzo-soprano); Hercules – James Bowman (countertenor); Attendant on Pleasure – Robert Tear (tenor)
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; English Chamber Orchestra/Philip Ledger;
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields/Philip Ledger
rec. Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge 9-10 December 1974 (Choice of Hercules); 24-28 July 1978 (Alexander’s Feast). ADD.
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6285202 [74:47 + 73:15]

I was about to write that this was the least expensive way to obtain Alexander’s Feast, at around £8.50 in the UK, vying with the Warner/Teldec reissue of Harnoncourt’s recording at around the same price (2564 690562). Then I noticed that Naxos have recently released a version on a single CD (8.572224, directed by Joachim Martini). I reviewed the Harnoncourt recently – here – and I have listened to the Naxos via the Naxos Music Library.

Harnoncourt and Martini use period instruments, while Ledger employs the modern-instrument English Chamber Orchestra. Even by 1978, however, some period practices had percolated down to non-specialist players, so lovers of the ‘authentic’ will hardly be too disappointed.

I was not wholly impressed by the Harnoncourt version, nor was John Sheppard by the Naxos, though he concluded that it “would certainly fill an important gap and give considerable pleasure” – see review. Martini’s tempi are faster than just about everyone else’s, beginning with the Overture – 5:32 against Ledger’s 6:31 – which mainly sounds stylish, if a little scrambled in the fast central section.

The Teldec opens with a determined account of the opening of the Overture, beginning with typical Harnoncourt attack; at first I thought that he might be emphasising the determination at the expense of the music's other aspects, but he gives full weight to the tenderness of the slow sections without failing to bring out the liveliness of the conclusion. Overall, I welcomed his decision to give the music just a little more time to breathe than John Eliot Gardiner (Decca Originals 475 7774), with Harry Christophers (Coro COR16028) splitting the difference - 6:31 against 6:12 and 6:23 respectively. So none of these versions rules itself out in the Overture, though Martini is perhaps a little too fast and Ledger slightly too slow overall.

The Naxos tenor, Knut Schoch, delivers an accomplished account of None but the brave. I actually preferred his singing here to that of Robert Tear on Virgin – something of a personal prejudice, I freely admit, but I usually find Tear’s voice rather colourless, and that is the case here. Something of the same criticism also applies to a lesser extent to Ian Partridge on Coro.

I also liked the audibility of the continuo in the preceding and succeeding recits on Naxos – what’s the point of having it if it’s as inaudible as on most modern recordings? Martini even gives the harp an attractive brief outing of its own at the end of Timotheus plac’d on high. It’s at this point that Christophers inserts the whole of the harp version of the Organ Concerto, Op.4/6; the others move straight on to the soprano accompagnato, The song began from Jove.

If anything, the Naxos soprano Gerlinde Sämann, sings even more attractively than her tenor counterpart: she offers a strong challenge to Helen Donath (Virgin), Donna Brown (Decca), and Nancy Argenta (Coro), good as they all are. This is clearly a talent to watch.

Revenge, Timotheus cries is one of the mainstays of the bass and baritone repertoire. Thomas Allen must have sung it more times than he could count and he offers a very impressive and striking performance – you can really see “the Furies [with] the snakes that they rear ... and the sparkles that flash in their eyes”. Though Allen is technically a baritone and on Naxos Klaus Mertens a bass, Allen’s performance is the more striking, with Michael George on Coro coming very close if not excelling him. Stephen Roberts sings the aria with accomplishment for Harnoncourt: he and Mertens would deserve very high marks at a music festival, but both sound too lightweight here. Stephen Varcoe, too, for Gardiner, sounds just a touch light.

Ledger and Christophers conclude with the additional chorus Your voices tune, a setting of words by Newburgh Hamilton which Handel added for the first performance at Covent Garden – the music is not quite up to the standard of the rest of the work, but it rounds it off nicely.

Of the various fillers offered by 2-CD versions of Alexander’s Feast, The Choice of Hercules on the new Virgin is the most generous. There is stiff competition here in the form of the only other recording, on Hyperion CDA67298, winner of the 2003 International Handel Recording Prize. The King’s Consort makes the strongest possible case for this work, rescued from the music which Handel had written for Smollett’s failed semi-opera Alceste – see review by Kirk McElhearn.

I meant to include this Hyperion CD among the Handel downloads which I included in various Download Roundups in late 2009, but never got round to it. Let me repair the omission by saying here that, small beer as this is by comparison with Alexander’s Feast, it is well worth hearing in such a fine performance. The download sound is good – for some reason which escapes me, I went for the mp3 rather than the lossless version: both come at the same attractive price of £7.99. (Find it here or purchase on CD.)

Ledger’s opening Sinfonia is rather more deliberately paced than King’s and this remains true in general throughout the performance – even in 1976 one reviewer called the direction slightly sober – though he actually takes some of the airs at a slightly more sprightly pace than King. In general, too, Ledger’s soloists sound a little more ‘traditional’ than King’s, with James Bowman not yet at his very good best, though I warmed to Robert Tear in the small part of the Attendant than I did in Alexander’s Feast. The choice is again between modern instruments (in this case, the ASMF) and the period-instrument King’s Consort – personal preferences may safely be left to decide here. Mine would be marginally for King on Hyperion, but I derived plenty of enjoyment from the Virgin reissue. The Virgin coupling is apt, too, since Hercules was performed alongside Alexander’s Feast in 1751.

The inclusion of an anthem by Handel’s erstwhile rival, Maurice Greene, on the Hyperion may help to redress a historical wrong – Greene is worth hearing – but the work chosen hardly adds much to the attraction of the performance of Hercules.

Both the Ledger recordings were made in the resonant acoustic of King’s College Chapel. The disadvantages of that acoustic were more apparent to reviewers of the original LP issues than they are on the new CDs, where it seems to have been suitably tamed.

There is no libretto with the Naxos and Virgin recordings, though the former gives a reference to an online version, which can also be accessed directly from the Naxos Music Library, as can the Coro booklet. With the Teldec, too, you have to go online for the English libretto, with French and German translations.

The Virgin booklet is the usual minimalist effort for their budget sets. Where the Coro booklet, for example, explains the provenance of the concluding additional chorus, the Virgin is silent on this point. The Virgin notes do, however, explain briefly why Alexander’s Feast and Hercules go well together. The Hyperion texts and notes for Hercules put the Virgin even more to shame; though, of course, that recording comes at full price, the booklet can also be downloaded free from the website.

The Naxos/Martini clearly offers the best monetary value, with Alexander’s Feast squeezed onto one CD. I actually liked it slightly better than John Sheppard: it makes a good bargain. The Ledger reissue runs it close, with well over 70 minutes on each CD. With The Choice of Hercules as a worthwhile filler, it actually works out less expensive per minute than the Naxos. What excellent value it is, too, when Hercules alone cost £3.20 in 1976 (over £30 in today’s values). The Harnoncourt, Gardiner and Christophers versions both offer rather short playing times at 96:43, 98:07 and 115:46 respectively.

There are the proverbial swings and roundabouts to consider in choosing a version of Alexander’s Feast, yet it’s Gardiner at mid price and Christophers at full price that I ultimately continue to recommend over Ledger by a small margin, with Christophers ahead by a nose. (See my September 2009 Download Roundup here.) Fans of Alfred Deller and his Consort should note the availability of a 6-CD Vox Box, still sounding well, which contains Alexander’s Feast – it’s also available to audition on Naxos Music Library and to download from classicsonline. (Music of Handel and Bach – The English Renaissance, Vox MC195, around £23 in the UK). Apart from such quirks as the ‘traditional’ pronunciation of Timotheus with a long i-diphthong and ‘flash’ pronounced as ‘flesh’ in the same aria, which are faintly irritating, I listened to this via the Naxos Library with enjoyment.

Ideally, too, the Hyperion Choice of Hercules outshines the new reissue. If you go for my top recommendations, however, your total outlay will amount to something like four times the cost of the Virgin reissue. If I were considering making the purchase myself and not dealing with review copies, I’m not sure that the virtues of these rivals would outweigh the price advantage of the Ledger. These considerations may well lead you to prefer this Virgin double to the strong competition.

Brian Wilson

Price considerations may well lead you to prefer this to the strong competition… see Full Review