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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Alexander’s Feast (1736)
Miriam Feuersinger (soprano); Daniel Johannsen (tenor); Matthias Helm (baritone)
Concerto Stella Matutina/Benjamin Lack
rec. 5 January 2015 in the Montforthaus Feldkirch, Austria
Full English text included FRA BERNARDO FB1615566 [56:14 + 29:54]
Handel set Newburgh Hamilton’s adaptation of John Dryden’s words in praise of the power of music at a time when he was searching for a form of musical entertainment that could substitute for his audience’s flagging interest in Italian opera. The composer, skilled at realising the dramatic possibilities of a text, could hardly fail to respond to the opportunities thrown up in this description of a lavish feast by Alexander the Great on defeating the Persians and the charms of music to provoke different moods and actions. But as a composition in honour of the patron saint of music that falls somewhere in genre between an ode or cantata at one level, and a full-oratorio on the other, without much narrative development, it is tricky to find a consistent register for it in performance.
As a live recording this interpretation by Benjamin Lack goes in for an alert approach that often brings out the idiosyncratic character of much of the music, not least in the choral numbers, such as the jaunty ‘Happy pair’, and in the lilting triplets of ‘Tha´s led the way’. Above all, Daniel Johannsen in the tenor part – effectively assuming the role of the bard Timotheus who relates the whole episode – instils most dramatic life into his role with his soft-toned, mellifluous singing. After a breathless start, Miriam Feuersinger’s account of the soprano role is attractive, with her gentle, quietly focussed vocal tone, which does not suffer strain in the securely placed, sustained high passages. In the aptly named aria ‘With ravish’d ears’. Matthias Helm is a dependable baritone in the few items allotted to that part.
However, these individual felicities are too sporadic to add up to a coherent interpretation of the work overall. In some of his numbers Johannsen is also rather mannered and sounds raw, and he adopts a distracting tendency to embellish slightly the first appearance of a phrase rather than its subsequent iterations. The timbre from the period ensemble Concerto Stella Matutina is robust rather than refined and, despite some odd moments of sensitive phrasing such as in the fugal part of the overture, more often than not they are rough and ready with somewhat flat, whining sound from the strings and gusty oboes not always well integrated into the texture. The horns are in tune for ‘Bacchus ever fair and young’ but the modulations cause problems for the rest of the orchestra. Although these German-speaking soloists’ and chorus’s grasp of the English words is virtually flawless, the latter are not quite unanimous in the contrapuntal musical lines of ‘The many rend the skies’. In this recording the chorus also sound slightly boxed in.
In theory the conditions of a live performance might have provided the opportunity for a more agile account of this episodic composition, and Lack’s interpretation offers much that is engaging, even if room could easily have been found to include the Concerto Grosso which Handel composed specifically for inclusion in the work. As it is, though, this is a rather half-baked Feast which does not supplant the recordings by bigger names such as those by John Eliot Gardiner’s (also a live account) and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. I do not know the recording by Peter Neumann, but that would be a firm recommendation if it is consistent with his other excellent Handel oratorio recordings. Those looking for more bombast in this music should explore another Harnoncourt project from 2012 when he reconstructed a grandiloquent arrangement by Franz von Mosel of Mozart’s re-composition of the work, performed in Vienna exactly two centuries previously as ‘Timotheus’ and foreshadowing the 19th Century’s later attempts to swell Handel’s ceremonialism to bursting point.