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Georg Friderich HANDEL (1685-1759)
Oratorios
Brockes-Passion, HWV 48 [153.23]
Alexander’s Feast, HWV 75 [84.53]
Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, HWV 76 [50.32]
Israel in Egypt, HWV 54 [119.46]
L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, HWV 55 [119.18]
Messiah, HWV 56 [139.11]
Solomon, HWV 67 [156.41]
Kölner Kammerchor, Collegium Cartusianum/Peter Neumann,
Kammerchor Stuttgart, Barockorchester Stuttgart/Frieder Bernius,
Vocalensemble Rastatt, Les Favorites/Holger Speck,
Winchester Cathedral Choir, FestspielOrchester Göttingen/Nicolas McGegan
Texts and English translations included
Full performance details at end of review
CARUS 83.040 [13 CDs: ca 12 hrs]

Carus has gathered together a 13 CD set of recordings of 7 major Handel oratorios from its back catalogue. It is made up of the Brockes-Passion, Alexander’s Feast, Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, Israel in Egypt, Messiah and Solomon as well as the rarely heard jewel L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. For this collection Carus has engaged ensembles of renowned early music specialists employing historically informed performances under experienced directors Peter Neumann, Frieder Bernius, Holger Speck and Nicolas McGegan.

Generally out of fashion today with the exception of the Messiah, which enjoys an enduring popularity with both choral societies and audiences, during Handel’s lifetime his oratorios were greatly admired and received frequent performances. After settling in England in 1712, during his first decades there Handel concentrated predominately on serious Italian opera for which he won great acclaim. During this time he also wrote a few oratorios notably Esther, Deborah, Athalia and Saul. In 1741 he completed his final opera Deidamia and thereafter concentrated seriously on writing oratorios.

The first work in this set, Brockes-Passion, was premičred in 1719, most likely at Hamburg Cathedral in Germany; this was Handel’s early, and only, contribution to the German oratorio. It is Handel’s setting of the text from the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes Der für die Sünde der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus (Jesus Who Suffered and Died for the Sins of the Word) detailing the passion from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion. Not my favourite Handel oratorio by any means, I find this early score rather uneven in quality. It doesn’t hold my attention for long and lacks the memorability of the later works. Nonetheless, with such a fine group of singers assembled by director Peter Neumann there are some inspiring moments notably from part 1: ‘Brich, mein Herz’ (Break my heart) sung by mezzo-soprano Nele Gramß as the Daughter of Zion conveying purity and a striking innocence. Known as the ‘Faithful Soul’ aria ‘Erwäg, Ergrimmte Natternbrut’ (Oh think! Ye savage viper blood) is inspiringly sung by Markus Brutscher with firm and expressive voice.

The ode Alexander’s Feast was a considerable success when first performed in 1736 at Covent Garden Theatre, London. It is a setting of John Dryden’s ode written in honour of St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians, as adapted by Handel’s librettist Newburgh Hamilton. The work regarded as a landmark, stylistically representative of Handel’s move from away from opera and towards oratorio. The soprano air ‘War, he sung, is toil and trouble’ sung by Simone Kermes is delightfully rendered as is the bass air ‘Revenge, Timotheos cries’, earthy with a satisfying steadiness. Written in 1739 Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day is a setting of the poem by English poet John Dryden in honour of St. Cecilia. The ode was introduced the same year at the Theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. For me highlights include the soprano aria ‘What passion cannot music raise’ performed stylishly by Simone Kermes and the tenor aria ‘Sharp violins proclaim’ sung perceptively by Virgil Hartinger.

Handel’s Israel in Egypt, written quickly in 1739, was premiered the same year at the King’s Theatre, London in the same season as the first performance of his oratorio Saul. Initially it was not well received until the growth of choral societies and festivals in England when it became extremely popular. A text attributed to Charles Jennens or sometimes to Handel himself uses selected passages from the Old Testament and Psalms. Musicologist David Ewen described the score as “one of the towering peaks in oratorio.” I especially relish the marvellous interplay of voices in the soprano duet ‘The Lord is my strength’ with Antonia Bourvé and Cornelia Winter. Also deserving of admiration is the basso duet ‘The Lord is a man of war’ sung by Konstantin Wolff and Markus Flaig. Very uplifting are the chorus Moses’ Song opening with ‘Moses and the Children of Israel sang this Song’ and the closing movement, the final song of triumph for Miriam and chorus, ‘Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously’ which is rendered as a glorious expression of victory.

The pastoral ode L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato to Charles Jennens’ text is based on John Milton’s paired poems L'Allegro and Il Penseroso and Jennens’ own Il Moderato. A sequence of vignettes honouring (amongst other things) the English landscape, Handel introduced the work in 1740 at the Royal Theatre, London to considerable acclaim. Handel keeps his two sopranos extremely busy and Maria Keohane (mainly L'Allegro) and Julia Doyle (mainly Il Penseroso) sing their airs radiantly with a wide range of expression. Tenor Benjamin Hulett performs the siciliano air ‘Let me wander not unseen’ with real accomplishment and understanding, and sturdy Andreas Wolf renders the basso airs in Il Moderato with splendour.

Unquestionably Handel’s supreme achievement in oratorio, Messiah is without rival. In 1741 Handel was probably invited to Dublin by the Lord Lieutenant of the City William Cavendish, 3rd Duke of Devonshire and the directors of several charities. For the trip Handel decided to compose a new oratorio utilising a text prepared for him by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. It was first performed at Dublin in 1742 where one reporter stated it “far surpasses anything of that Nature, which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom.” From a consistent cast of strong soloists, probably the most satisfying performance is given by soprano Carolyn Sampson. There is a lovely purity to her voice and with characteristic ease of delivery she expresses the text with ideal reverence. Especially successful is the aria ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ with Sampson conveying a persuasive sense of consolation. Benjamin Hulett makes a strong impression with his ringing and assured tenor. Notable are the uplifting accompagnato ‘Comfort ye my people’ and air ‘Every Valley shall be exalted’. Countertenor Daniel Taylor gives an engaging performance marked by his fluid and attractive tone; he undoubtedly relishes ‘O thou that tellest’ and the lengthiest solo in the work, the beautiful ‘He was despised’ has appropriate introspection and piety. Baritone Peter Harvey, a Handel specialist, excels in the basso role responding vividly to the text. His perceptive and expressive voice is ideal for the part he sings with particular confidence in his solo airs ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together’ and ‘The Trumpet shall sound’. Today there are a number of excellent recordings of Messiah in the catalogue. I usually turn to compelling accounts using period instruments directed by Trevor Pinnock with the English Concert from 1988 and Paul McCreesh with the Gabrieli Consort & Players from 1996 both on Archiv Produktion.

The final work here, Solomon, twas successfully introduced in 1749 at Covent Garden Theatre, London. Based on the Old Testament text and Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews it is not definitely known who prepared the text, with the names Moses Mendes and Thomas Morrell put forward. A substantial work (lasting 156 minutes here) the oratorio is constructed around the various aspects of the character of the Hebrew king Solomon. Nicholas McGegan has selected his cast extremely well. Soprano Dominique Labelle sings the Queen’s air ‘Bless’d the Day’ with a satisfying blend of radiance and piety. In the part of Solomon, countertenor Tim Mead is in fine form especially with the airs ‘What though I trace’ and ‘When the sun’, displaying his smooth and expressive voice to significant effect. Baritone Roderick Williams as a Levite doesn’t put a foot wrong. The Levite’s airs ‘Praise ye the Lord’, ‘Thrice bless’d’ and particularly ‘Pious king’ demonstrate Williams’ tremendous voice, firm, attractively rich and highly expressive. Claron McFadden as the Queen of Sheba is brightly radiant in her soprano air ‘Ev’ry sight’ and tenor Michael Slattery, as the High Priest Zadok, sings his buoyant air ‘See the tall palm’ with focus. From act 3 the magnificent orchestral passage ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ sounds as excellent as I have heard.

Under the direction of Peter Neumann, Frieder Bernius, Holger Speck and Nicolas McGegan, it is remarkable how each early music ensemble and chorus performs to a consistently high standard. I am also able to report that, across the set, the sound quality is admirable revealing ample detail together with pleasing balance. Lavishly produced by Carus with lots of detail the set comes with a booklet containing helpful background information for each of the 7 oratorios and a separate booklet for the essential texts with English/German translations is included.

There is so much to enjoy with this Carus set and I’m sure with repeated listening more enjoyment will accrue.

Michael Cookson


Performance details
CD 1-2 [2 CDs: 78.25 + 74.58]
Brockes-Passion, HWV 48
Passion Oratorio to words by Baerthold Heinrich Brockes, after the copy from J.S. Bach
Nele Gramß, soprano - Daughter of Zion
Johanna Winkel, soprano - Believer
Markus Brutscher, tenor - Evangelist
Markus Flaig, bass - Jesus
Elvira Bill, mezzo-sop - Maria
Jan Thomer, alto - Judas
James Oxley, tenor - Peter
Michael Dahmen, bass
Kölner Kammerchor, Collegium Cartusianum/Peter Neumann,
rec. live 17-19 May 2009 Kirche St. Johann, Schaffhausen, Switzerland
Released 2010 on Carus 83.428

CD 3-4 [2 CDs: 57.06 + 78.28]
Alexander’s Feast, HWV 75
Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, HWV 76
Simone Kermes, soprano
Virgil Hartinger, tenor
Konstantin Wolff, bass
Kölner Kammerchor, Collegium Cartusianum/Peter Neumann,
rec. live 25-27 October 2008 Trinitatiskirche, Köln, Germany
Released 2009 on Carus 83.424

CD 5-6 [2 CDs: 70.30 + 49.16]
Israel in Egypt, HWV 54
Oratorio in 3 parts
Antonia Bourvé, soprano I
Cornelia Winter, soprano II
Terry Wey, alto I
Michael Hofmeister, alto II
Jan Kobow, tenor
Konstantin Wolff, bass I
Markus Flaig, bass II
Vocalensemble Rastatt, Les Favorites/Holger Speck
rec. 1-4 June, 29 September 2008 BadnerHalle, Rastatt, Germany
Released 2009 on Carus 83.423

CD 7-8 [2 CDs: 60.06 + 59.12]
L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, HWV 55
Oratorio in 3 parts
Maria Keohane, soprano (Il Penseroso, Il Moderato No. 52)
Julia Doyle, soprano (L'Allegro, Il Penseroso No. 21, Il Moderato No. 49)
Benjamin Hulett, tenor
Andreas Wolf, bass
Kölner Kammerchor, Collegium Cartusianum/Peter Neumann
rec. 21-24 October 2012 Trinitatiskirche, Köln, Germany
Released 2013 on Carus 83.295

CD 9-10 [2 Cds: 67.06 + 72.05]
Messiah, HWV 56
Oratorio in 3 parts
Carolyn Sampson, soprano
Daniel Taylor, alto
Benjamin Hulett, tenor
Peter Harvey, bass
Kammerchor Stuttgart, Barockorchester Stuttgart/Frieder Bernius
rec. 26-30 December 2008 Evangelische Kirche Gönningen, Germany
Released 2009 Carus 83.219

CD 11-13 [3 CDs: 60.18 + 49.16 + 47.07]
Solomon, HWV 67
Oratorio in 3 parts
Tim Mead, alto - Solomon
Dominique Labelle, soprano - Queen, First Harlot
Claron McFadden, soprano - Queen of Sheba, Second Harlot
Michael Slattery, tenor - High Priest Zadok
William Kendall, tenor - Attendant
Roderick Williams, bass - Levite
Winchester Cathedral Choir, FestspielOrchester Göttingen/Nicolas McGegan
rec. live 26 May 2006 Frauenkirche, Dresden
Released 2007 on Carus 83.242

 

 




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