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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, with German translation
BR KLASSIK 900520 [75:38 + 62:49]

Dr Johnson observed that “occasional poetry must often content itself with occasional praise”, and that also could apply to the other arts. The event which prompted Handel’s eponymous oratorio was the advance of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 as far south as Derby, and so the great composer for Protestant Hanoverian monarchs hastily put together this work to support and promote the regime in its moment of political crisis. The Oratorio was premiered in February 1746, and only after that was the rebellion finally put down by the Duke of Cumberland at Culloden, which gave Handel the opportunity to create, under less pressure of time, the undeniable military masterpieces, Joshua and Judas Maccabaeus.

Handel was too great a genius to turn out a work with no artistic merit or inventiveness, however limited or particular its purpose. But the Oratorio’s almost total neglect since the composer’s time is presumably explicable by its more or less blatant propaganda (interceding on behalf of the nation to ask God to “bless the true church, and save the King”, for example), not least in re-using the outer sections of the Coronation Anthem ‘Zadok the Priest’ as its concluding chorus. Although lacking a fully dramatic narrative with any named characters, the work is similar in form and style to Israel in Egypt and Messiah and so, given the huge popularity of these oratorios, that facet of its structure cannot be an obvious cause for its neglect – and choral societies would surely relish its preponderance of lively choruses. As a ceremonial piece it is perhaps closer to the former oratorio – especially in dealing with the subject of the Israelite nation in danger, and Britain by analogy – with some numbers actually recycled from the earlier work, although this new recording omits the ‘Hailstones’ Chorus. Alongside that are also some beautiful, tender numbers, which provide imaginative and astute contrast, and therefore a clearly varied and rich musical tapestry.

Even so, the Oratorio remains something of a composite work lacking the coherent dramatic purpose of virtually all the others, and is best seen as a first essay in a series of triumphal, celebratory works that would occupy Handel during the remainder of the 1740s, such as Joshua and Judas Maccabaeus, and the Music for the Royal Fireworks. The overture’s first section looks ahead to the latter in character, whilst its March anticipates that in Part Three of Judas Maccabaeus.

In general Arman inspires a bold and energetic reading of the score with a reasonably sized orchestra. There is often a raw vitality that sometimes recalls Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s approach to Handel, rather than the more stately and broad-brush manner of other Handel performances, particularly those by the King’s Consort for example, who made the only other recording of this work. But at times the string sonority takes on a certain thinness such as, surprisingly, in the solid, forthright writing of ‘His sceptre is the rod of righteousness’, where there is an idiomatic bulging in their tone on some of the more sustained notes, reminiscent of the curious way Jean-Claude Malgoire had with Handel in his opera recordings. Arman’s approach to the opening of ‘Blessed are all they’ – the final chorus, re-using the music of ‘Zadok the Priest’ – will excite some but exasperate others in the way that its brisk, one-to-a-bar character results in a palpable surge at the beginning of each bar in the solemn orchestral introduction of rising arpeggios.

The three vocal soloists are accomplished, demonstrating commendable technical agility, but they are also inconsistent. Julia Doyle takes some of the soprano’s numbers with fearless vigour, not least in the virtuosic ‘Fly from the threatening vengeance’ – whose coloratura is fully the equal of anything in Handel’s operas. However she is softer-toned and perhaps a little too retiring, at other times, as in ‘Be wise at length’. Ben Jonson is aptly calm and authoritative, not uncertain or fearful, in ‘O Lord, how many are my foes’ as the Oratorio proceeds to stir its audience’s courage and mettle, but elsewhere a rough-edged, nasal quality enters his voice, rather oddly in the case of the pastoral mood of ‘Jehovah is my shield’, and problematically during the semiquaver sequences of Part Three’s ‘The enemy said’, having negotiated the tricky leaps of ‘He has his mansion fix’d on high’ in the previous Part efficiently and cleanly without disrupting the aria’s underlying pulse.

Peter Harvey gives a generally committed account of the role allotted to the bass, though he is rather too relaxed in ‘Why do the gentiles tumult’ – this Oratorio’s counterpart to Messiah’s more famous setting of Psalm 2 in a different translation (‘Why do the nations?’). But he is fervent and dignified in the glowing texture of ‘To God our King’, overlaid with radiant strings chords and a luminous duet between trumpet and oboe that recalls the opening of the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne.

More dependable are the chorus, who often present a solid body of sound with firm conviction, whether in widely-spaced chordal textures such as ‘May God, from whom all mercies spring’ or the more supple polyphony of ‘God found them guilty’ which looks back in style to Handel’s earlier Chandos Anthems for example; or the lithe flow of the lulling ‘Be wise at length ye Kings’. Although a German choir, their understanding and declamation of the English text is exemplary, particularly in their crisp attack on the fast, staccato section “scattered like sheep” in ‘Be wise at length’, which would present quite a challenge to a native English choir.

The sleeve notes state that this performance apparently uses the new 2009 Halle Händel Edition of the score, which takes fuller account of all the sources and variants for the work than the old 1884 volume of Chrysander’s complete edition. By following the latter I did not notice anything significant missing in that score, and the booklet’s assertion that the briefer accompanied recitative version of ‘O Lord how many are my foes’ used at the premiere run is given here is incorrect, as Jonson performs the longer arioso version of Handel’s revival in 1747.

This is a live recording, but audience noise is eradicated, including applause at the end of each Part. Despite the excitement and presence of a performance in concert, it is the inconsistencies that arise in the heat of the moment in those conditions which give away the provenance of this release. Robert King’s 1994 recording with The King’s Consort for Hyperion remains first choice in this work, for the more stately and ceremonial character he brings out from the work in the studio, and a more satisfactory line up of soloists. The latter also offer more variety as the higher part – given Doyle along under Arman – is divided among two sopranos and a countertenor for King, which enables the duet ‘After long storms’ to be taken by Susan Gritton and James Bowman instead of dropping the lower vocal line an octave for the tenor, as happens under Arman, which downplays the number’s mellifluous chains of thirds and sixths between the two closely aligned parts. Some may prefer the greater edge-of-the-seat drama of this new version, but I suspect that many Handelians will remain committed to King’s account, which is better thought through, and sets down the complete score.

Curtis Rogers

Previous review: Michael Cookson



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