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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Occasional Oratorio in three parts for soloists, chorus and orchestra, HWV 62 (1745) [138:24]
English libretto by Newburgh Hamilton after the poetry of John Milton and Edmund Spenser
Julia Doyle (soprano), Ben Johnson (tenor), Peter Harvey (baritone), Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin / Howard Arman
rec. live 9-11 February 2017, Herkulessaal, Munich
English sung texts included
BR KLASSIK 900520 [75:38 + 62:49]

BR Klassik has released a number of albums of Baroque choral works, mainly by J. S. Bach and Handel. Now the label has turned its attention to Handel’s Occasional Oratorio directed by Howard Arman, recorded during live concerts in 2017 at the crowded Herkulessaal, Munich. I have been able to watch on YouTube a transmission of a live stream of one of the Herkulessaal concerts.

Despite its quality, the Occasional Oratorio is little known and rarely performed. In 2016, I reviewed a 13-CD box set on Carus comprising several large-scale oratorios: Messiah, Alexander’s Feast, Israel in Egypt, Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, Brockes-Passion, Solomon and L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Not surprisingly, the Occasional Oratorio was not included in the set. This serves to underline its neglected status amongst Handel oratorios.

Handel wrote 27 oratorios. The Occasional Oratorio is number 18, written quickly in early 1745 when Handel, about to turning 60, was experiencing severe financial difficulties. In the absence of King George II, who was in Hanover, Jacobite leader Prince Charles Edward Stuart, a.k.a. The Young Pretender or Bonnie Prince Charlie, was leading an army marching south to London to overthrow the king. In view of this troubled political situation, Handel, loyal to the king, saw writing a new score as an attempt to revive waning spirits in London. He subsequently produced the Occasional Oratorio which included recycling arias, choruses and instrumental passages from his other works. The oratorio received three performances when produced the next year at Theatre-Royal, Covent Garden in London, and with some revisions the score was revived for three more performances in 1747. Here, music director Howard Arman has recorded a performance based on the new critical edition of the Occasional Oratorio published in 2009 as part of the Halle Handel Edition. We are informed in the booklet notes that the 1884 edition forming part of the first complete edition of Handel’s works by musicologist Friedrich Chrysander employs all the significant sources and revisions of Handel’s score.

In effect, the Occasional Oratorio is a series of dramatic tableaux. It does not contain an actual plot, but the central theme is that a troubled country can conquer a mighty adversary with God’s assistance. Part one portrays the anguish of a country under foreign control. In part two, tribute is given to the model situation of liberty and concord when the adversary can be defeated with the help of God. The final third part highlights triumph over the enemy, and thanks and praise to God.

In the bass part Peter Harvey’s rich and durable voice complete with near flawless diction is ideal for the role. He displays lucid expression and unerring conviction. Not surprisingly, in such a challenging role occasionally there is some slight unevenness. Harvey is in especially striking form in the part-two aria for bass and chorus “To God, our strength, sing loud and clear”. It is a precious gem with distinctly attractive wind accompaniment.

Standing out strongly and radiating formidable assurance, soprano Julia Doyle excels at displaying conspicuous purity and smooth tone throughout. A particular highlight from part two is the sparkling aria “Prophetic visions strike my eye”, meaningfully proclaiming victory and peace. It demonstrates Doyle’s markedly impressive control of coloratura passages.

Tenor Ben Johnson aquits himself well, confirming his empathy for the texts. He displays sure expression and clarity of diction. An object lesson in communicating the words is his part-one aria “O Lord, how many are my foes”. I find rewarding Johnson’s control and appealing tone, complemented by lovely oboe accompaniment.

Conductor Howard Arman uses fairly modest forces, with the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks comprising of 43 singers. Performing with an elevated quality, the choir delivers full-toned singing in a constantly rewarding performance marked by a compelling unity and unaffected expression in the text. Striking is the performance of the stirring final chorus “Blessed are all they that fear the Lord”; it is actually a rewording of Handel’s coronation anthem “Zadok the Priest.” Period instrument specialist Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin is 32 players strong. Arman maintains a sure and buoyant momentum. The Akademie responds with spirited playing of model amplitude and weight. Exquisite are the various solo accompaniments by the principals given to individual arias.

Recorded for live radio broadcast from Herkulessaal in Munich, the engineering team provide satisfying sound quality, notably agreeable clarity which is well balanced between soloist, chorus and orchestra. There is a valuable booklet essay titled “Just the Thing for the King, written by Alexander Heinzel. The English text is included too. It all adds to the overall appeal of the release.

Probably the finest performance in the record catalogue I know of the Occasional Oratorio is the inspiring 1994 account on Hyperion. It features soloists Susan Gritton, Lisa Milne, James Bowman, John Mark Ainsley and Michael George, New College Choir Oxford and The King's Consort choir and a leading period-instrument orchestra The King's Consort directed by Robert King. Now King has serious competition with this exceptional BR Klassik release conducted by Howard Arman.

Michael Cookson



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