The 50 greatest Handel recordings – Part 3

Gramophone Wed 12th October 2016

The finest recordings of Handel's music, from 'Esther' to 'Susanna'

Verdi's Macbeth

All of the reviews printed below were originally published in Gramophone, the world's leading classical music magazine. To find out more about subscribing, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

Esther (1732 version)

Rosemary Joshua, Rebecca Outram, Cecilia Osmond sops Susan Bickley mez James Bowman counterten Angus Smith, Andrew Kennedy, Christopher Watson tens Christopher Purves bar London Handel Choir and Orchestra / Laurence Cummings

(Somm)

Recorded live 2002

This is a particularly welcome and important world premiere recording. Handel composed Esther in about 1718‑20 for James Brydges, the Earl of Carnarvon (and later Duke of Chandos), using a libretto that was anonymously adapted from Thomas Brereton’s English translation of a play by Racine. This slender work, containing only six scenes, lays a strong claim to being the first English oratorio, but Handel seems not to have considered performing it for a public audience until 1732, when the entrepreneurial composer thoroughly revised the score to fit his company of Italian opera singers (including Senesino, Strada and Montagnana, who all sang in English), and enlisted the aid of the writer Samuel Humphreys to expand the drama with additional scenes. This is the historic version of Esther that launched Handel’s oratorio career in London, but it has remained inexplicably neglected in modern times.

Laurence Cummings is one of our finest and most natural Handelian conductors. The Israelite Woman’s sensuous opening number ‘Breathe soft, ye gales’ (featuring recorders, oboes, bassoons, harp, theorbo, five-part strings and organ) is neatly judged by the impressive London Handel Orchestra. The superb choir is enthusiastic and masterly, and the two inserted Coronation Anthems My heart is inditing and Zadok the Priest (the latter given a parody text) are both performed magnificently. James Bowman sounds a little fragile in the most extensive coloratura passages written for Senesino in ‘Endless fame’, and the part of Mordecai seems uncomfortably low for Susan Bickley (which is not helped by the dragging speed of ‘Dread not, righteous Queen, the danger’), but in general the soloists form a consistently solid team. Christopher Purves is marvellous as the scheming and bullying evil minister Haman, and is equally good at singing the pitiful and lyrical ‘Turn not, O Queen, thy face away’ when the villain fears his deserved doom.

The all-round excellence of this live concert performance from Handel’s parish church, St George’s, Hanover Square, makes it an essential treat for Handelians.

 

Israel in Egypt

Nancy Argenta, Emily Van Evera sops Timothy Wilson counterten Anthony Rolfe Johnson ten David Thomas, Jeremy White basses Taverner Choir and Players / Andrew Parrott

(Erato)

Israel in Egypt, of all Handel’s works, is the choral one par excellence – so much so, in fact, that it was something of a failure in Handel’s own time because solo singing was much preferred to choral by the audiences. Andrew Parrott gives a complete performance of the work, in its original form: that’s to say, prefaced by the noble funeral anthem for Queen Caroline, as adapted by Handel to serve as a song of mourning by the captive Israelites. This first part is predominantly slow, grave music, powerfully elegiac; the Taverner Choir shows itself to be firm and clean of line, well focused and strongly sustained. The chorus has its chance to be more energetic in the second part, with the famous and vivid Plague choruses – in which the orchestra too plays its part in the pictorial effects, with the fiddles illustrating in turn frogs, flies and hailstones. And last, in the third part, there’s a generous supply of the stirring C major music in which Handel has the Israelites give their thanks to God, in some degree symbolising the English giving thanks for the Hanoverian monarchy and the Protestant succession. Be that as it may, the effect is splendid. The solo work is first-rate, too, with Nancy Argenta radiant in Miriam’s music in the final scene and distinguished contributions from David Thomas and Anthony Rolfe Johnson.

 

Jephtha

Lynne Dawson, Ruth Holton sops Anne Sofie von Otter mez Michael Chance counterten Nigel Robson ten Stephen Varcoe bar Alastair Ross hpd Paul Nicholson org Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner

(Philips)

Jephtha has the same basic story as several eastern Mediterranean myths familiar to the opera-goer (in Idomeneo and Iphigénie en Aulide, for example), of the father compelled to sacrifice his child. In the event Jephtha’s daughter Iphis isn’t sacrificed: when, Abraham-like, her father has shown himself willing to perform God’s will, and she has shown herself ready to accept it, an angel happily intervenes and commutes her sentence to perpetual virginity. But not before the tragic situation has provoked some of the noblest music Handel wrote. From the moment Jephtha sees that it’s his daughter who has to fall victim to his improvident oath, the music, hitherto on a good but not outstanding level, acquires a new depth, above all in the sequence at the end of Act 2. This recording does the work full justice. It could scarcely have been better cast. Nigel Robson seems ideal as Jephtha. He has due weight as well as vigour, style as well as expressive force. Lynne Dawson’s Iphis is also a real success. Sometimes this role is done in a girlishly ‘innocent’ vein; she does more than that, establishing the character in the appealing love duet in Act 1. Her firm, well focused, unaffected singing is just right for this role.

The other outstanding contribution comes from Michael Chance as Hamor, her unfortunate betrothed. Stephen Varcoe sings Zebul’s music with due resonance and spirit, and Anne Sofie von Otter makes a distinguished contribution in Storgè’s music: ‘Scenes of horror’ has a splendid attack and depth of tone, and ‘Let other creatures die!’ is spat out with rare power. Ruth Holton makes a pleasantly warm and mellifluous angel. The Monteverdi Choir are in fine voice, responsive to all that Gardiner asks of them. Here and there one might cavil at some of the dynamic shaping in the choruses, for example in ‘Doubtful fear’ in Act 3; and the Overture can be a trifle fussy in detail. But the broad vision of the work, the rhythmic energy that runs through it and the sheer excellence of the choral and orchestral contributions speak for themselves. Cuts are very few, and amply justified by authentic precedent. This recording is firmly recommended as the standard version of this great work.

 

Messiah (Dublin version, 1742)

Susan Hamilton sop Clare Wilkinson, Annie Gill, Heather Cairncross mez Nicholas Mulroy ten Matthew Brook bar Edward Caswell bass Dunedin Consort / John Butt

(Linn)

For an infinitely rewarding fresh look at Handel’s most familiar music, look no further than the Dunedin Consort’s performance of Handel’s first version, premiered at Dublin in 1742. Bizarrely under-represented in concert and on disc, the Dublin score contains some fascinating music that Handel never reused, such as the substantial chorus ‘Break forth into joy’. The exuberant direction by harpsichordist John Butt is meticulously stylish and utterly devoid of crassly pretentious egotism. The playing is unerringly spontaneous and dramatically integrated with singers who illustrate profound appreciation of text. Clare Wilkinson’s ‘He was despised’ is most moving, Susan Hamilton effortlessly skips through a delicious ‘Rejoice greatly’, and bass Matthew Brook sings as if his life depends on it.

Butt bravely resolves to use the same forces Handel had at his disposal in Dublin, which means that the entire oratorio is sung by a dozen singers (with all soloists required to participate in the choruses, as Handel would have expected). Where this approach might risk worthy dull solos churned out by stalwart choir members, the Dunedin Consort’s exemplary singers produce virtuoso choruses that are theatrically charged, splendidly poised and exquisitely blended. Old warhorses ‘For unto us a child is born’ and ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’ are delightfully inspiring. Butt and the Dunedin Consort marry astute scholarship to sincere artistic expression and the result is comfortably the freshest, most natural, revelatory and transparently joyful Messiah to have appeared for a very long time.

 

Messiah

The Sixteen / Harry Christophers

(Coro)

Over the past few decades Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have performed Messiah about 150 times. This new Coro recording presents them to better advantage than their uneven 1987 version for Hyperion: the choir remains excellent 21 years later but the orchestra and soloists are a vast improvement. Only one member of the choir and two orchestral players repeat their roles in the 2008 performance, and the violin section has swelled from seven to 12, which helps to produce a stronger theatrical sound. Christophers’s interpretation nowadays is just over four minutes longer than it was in 1987, so there are no radical changes in his overall pacing, but taking a few things a notch slower suggests an increased confidence and maturity.

The contribution from the oboes is more telling and to the fore than one usually hears, although the prominence of the organ as a continuo instrument is seldom convincing (nor is the use of theorbo accompaniment in recitatives). The Sixteen’s choral singing has clarity, balance, shapely moulding of contrapuntal lines and plenty of unforced power. When necessary, resonant homophonic grandeur is achieved without pomposity. The contrast between the playful and solemn parts of “All we like sheep” is wondrously realised, and the soft sections of “Since by man came death” are breathtaking.

Three of the soloists earned their spurs as members of The Sixteen. Mark Padmore, a choir member in 1987 and here making his third (and best) Messiah recording as a soloist, could be a little lighter in “Comfort ye”, but his evangelical communication of words is highly effective in “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart”. Carolyn Sampson and the orchestra’s violins relish an equal dialogue in “Rejoice greatly”, and her coloratura sparkles with clarity and assurance. Christopher Purves sings “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth” more softly than one usually hears, and “The trumpet shall sound” is lyrical and suave (with splendid obbligato from Robert Farley). Christophers conducts with finesse and integrity. This fine team performance is a safe recommendation for anyone wanting to acquire an all-purpose “period” Messiah.

 

La Resurrezione

Camilla Tilling, Kate Royal sops Sonia Prina contr Toby Spence ten Luca Pisaroni bass-bar Le Concert d’Astrée / Emmanuelle Haïm hpd/org

(Erato)

Handel’s early Resurrection oratorio, written in 1708 during the young composer’s Roman sojurn, is characterised by a freshness and vitality that he seldom matched in more mature works. That spirit shines through in Emmanuelle Haïm’s excellent new recording with her Concert d’Astrée, played with all the expressive flair one has come to expect of her. In what might be described as the French manner in Handel, Haïm can be exaggerated in her tempi, lavishing care on the beautiful slower numbers, but that seems to me to be absolutely right, and preferable to some of the stiff-upper-lip English interpretations in a surprisingly full discography of this work.

After all, La Resurrezione is an opera in all but name, a sacred drama hiding behind the oratorio label because of the Papal ban on opera in Rome during that period. In common with many operas of the time – and fewer oratorios – there are no large choral forces required in this portrayal of the battle between protagonists of darkness and light. The path towards the ultimate victory of Christ’s acolytes is portrayed in music of great brilliance and Handel must have made a profound impression on his Roman colleagues at the premiere – where the orchestra was led by none other than Corelli.

The international cast includes two Italians, whose verbal relish is especially good to hear. Luca Pisaroni makes a suitably villainous Lucifer and his virile bass-baritone is well up to the wide tessitura of the part; this is a devil who gets some of the most difficult tunes. Sonia Prina’s contralto is heard to lovely effect in Mary Cleophas’s pastoral music. The work’s striking opening aria belongs to the Angel, taken here with plenty of presence by Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling. Two British singers complete the line-up and both give of their very best. Toby Spence is elegant in St John the Evangelist’s music, and Kate Royal finds sumptuous beauty and emotional depth in the part of Mary Magdalene.

 

Saul

Christopher Purves, Sarah Connolly, Robert Murray, Elizabeth Atherton, Joélle Harvey, Mark Dobell, Jeremy Budd, Stuart Young; The Sixteen / Harry Christophers

(Coro) 

Saul is one of Handel’s most distinctive and greatest masterpieces. Composed only a few years before he ceased writing Italian operas for the London stage, the Biblical dramatic oratorio launched his season at the King’s Theatre on January 16, 1739; the other new work for the season was Israel in Egypt (premiered on April 4), which also featured Handel’s rare use of trombones to enrich several opulent numbers.

The epic anthology of archaic and modern chorus techniques in the scriptural, monumental and decidedly undramatic Israel in Egypt was radically different from the fascinating dramatic characters and quasi-Shakespearean intensity of the vividly theatrical Saul, in which the trombones, carillon and harp are used to illustrate Biblical scenes of music-making, from jubilant crowd scenes to intimate music for David.

Harry Christophers’s enthusiastic preface to the booklet incorrectly claims that Saul ‘represents Handel’s first proper foray into oratorio’, but his ever-sure handling of choruses, sensitivity to the needs of solo singers and affinity for the orchestral grandeur of Handel’s most elaborate score mark him out as an honest, natural Handelian conductor: choices of tempo tend to be about right, and very little in this performance feels contrived, unstylish or misconstrued. A large part of the success of The Sixteen’s performance is the warmly detailed stylishness of the orchestral playing; the organ concerto-style movement in the overture has seldom sounded more fluent, even if it is not entirely clear which of the wo credited organists plays the solos. The punctuating trumpets, trombones and timpani and choral exclamations in the epinicion celebrating the boy David’s victory over Goliath (‘How excellent thy name, O Lord’) offer a glorious swagger, and the altos, tenors and basses of the choir relish illustrating the deceased Philistine’s giant steps in ‘Along the monster atheist strode’.

It now seems that evidence is not conclusive about whether or not the heroic role of the virtuous warrior and talented musician David was first sung by a countertenor; Christophers’s note argues against the countertenor solution, using ideas attributed to the late and great Handel scholar Anthony Hicks, who would have probably been a little more careful about the matter in print. However, all questions of gender/voice-type disintegrate when one hears Sarah Connolly’s shapely phrasing, melodic sweetness and eloquent command of language. ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’ is as quietly rapturous as anyone other than the enraged Saul could desire.

Jonathan’s soliloquy disobeying his father’s cruel order to assassinate David is sung thoughtfully by Robert Murray. Saul’s daughters Michal and Merab are like chalk and cheese regarding their initially opposed attitudes toward David, and Elizabeth Atherton and Joélle Harvey are different enough in tone to make an effective direct contrast between the disdainful Merab’s ‘My soul rejects the thought’ and her sister Michal’s ‘Ah, lovely youth’. Discretion might have been the better part of valour for the over-employed harp continuo: the instrument Handel presumably reserved as a special effect connected to David does not seem to fit in the haughty Merab’s ‘What abject thoughts a prince can have!’ (Atherton conveys an ideal dosage of scorn), although the artistic licence works charmingly in Harvey’s lovely performance of Michal’s ‘Fell rage and black despair’, which refers to David striking ‘the sweet persuasive lyre’ (the flute obbligato is beautifully played by Christine Garratt).

Christopher Purves charms, broods, fumes implacably, plots villainously and confronts his doom vividly in the manner of a Shakespearean tragedian. The incrementing fury of his secretive seething reactions to imprudent women exalting David’s military successes above those of their king (the carillon-laden choruses ‘Welcome, welcome, mighty king’) are compelling. The bombastic brassy symphony that precedes his gloating anticipation as he hopes to murder David treacherously at the Feast of the New Moon is a bit short on rhetorical posture but Christophers’s trusting direction of the ombra music is spot-on as the forsaken Saul resorts to outlawed witchcraft on the eve of his final doom in battle.

The sublime elegy for the slain Jonathan and Saul is heartrending in most of the right places; its plangent choral passages are tailor-made for The Sixteen’s flexible, supple and articulate voices, although Christophers uncharacteristically rushes ‘Eagles were not so swift as they’: the vital mood of doleful lamentation should be sustained more organically rather than a sudden rush to convey the dizzy swiftness of eagles who are only metaphorical (Handel did not indicate a tempo marking but I doubt he intended presto vivace).

The Sixteen’s experience of Renaissance polyphony is evident in several contemplative choruses, such as ‘Preserve him for the glory of Thy name’, which sounds beguilingly more like Palestrina rather than the choppy fugue one ordinarily hears even in the best performances. Contrapuntal lines are moulded warmly and with immaculate diction, and extrovert choruses are sung with plenty of charisma, seductiveness or moral outrage as the texts variously demand, such as the choric contemplations of envy and rage that bookend Act 2. Special recordings of Handel’s greatest English dramatic oratorios have become too rare recently, so it is valuable that The Sixteen’s first-class account of Saul is magnificent in every way that matters most.

 

Semele 

Rosemary Joshua, Gail Pearson sops Hilary Summers contr Stephen Wallace counterten Richard Croft ten Brindley Sherratt bass Chorus and Orchestra of the Early Opera Company / Christian Curnyn

(Chandos)

Of a handful of previous recordings of Semele, none was entirely satisfying. Which makes this new version – complete save for an aria for Cupid that Handel later pilfered forHercules – all the more welcome. Christian Curnyn understands the unique tinta of this gorgeous score, and directs his spruce period band with a nice blend of nonchalant elegance and dramatic energy. Tempi are shrewdly judged, rhythms light and supple, and recitatives tumble inevitably into arias. The tragic denouement in Act 3 has due weight and intensity, whether in the tenderly inflected accompanied recitatives for Jupiter and Semele, or the awed chorus of Thebans after the heroine’s incineration.

As at the English National Opera, Rosemary Joshua, radiant of tone, dazzling in coloratura, makes Semele far more than an over-sexed airhead. She is trills ethereally in ‘The morning lark’, distils a drowsy, erotic languor in ‘O sleep, why dost thou leave me?’, and ornaments her ‘mirror’ aria, ‘Myself I shall adore’, with dizzy glee. She is imploring and fiery by turns in her exchanges with Jupiter, and brings real pathos to the haunting siciliano ‘Thus let my thanks be paid’ and her sublime death scene. As Jupiter, Richard Croft fields a honeyed, sensuous tone (heard to advantage in a seductive ‘Where’re you walk’) and formidable agility, though he could learn a thing or two about diction from Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (on Gardiner’s Erato set).

Like Handel himself, Curnyn assigns the virago Juno and Semele’s gentle sister Ino to the same singer. Hilary Summers, a true, deep contralto, characterises both roles well. Brindley Sherratt, with his oaky bass, offers vivid, witty cameos as Cadmus and Somnus, while Stephen Wallace sings Athamus’s arias with smooth tone and a nimble florid technique, though a suspicion remains that the role lies a bit low for him. With excellent recorded sound and balance, and an informative essay from David Vickers, this becomes a clear first choice for an ever-enticing work.

 

Solomon

Inger Dam-Jensen, Susan Gritton, Alison Hagley sops Susan Bickley mez Andreas Scholl counterten Paul Agnew ten Peter Harvey bass Gabrieli Consort & Players / Paul McCreesh

(Archiv)

Solomon is universally recognised as one of Handel’s finest masterpieces, not only with magnificent choruses, but more importantly containing rapturous love music, nature imagery, affecting emotion and the vividly portrayed dramatic scene of Solomon’s famous judgement over the disputed infant. This is in fact the only dramatic part of the oratorio; and each of the female characters appears in only one of the work’s three parts. Paul McCreesh, responsive to the work’s stature, employs an orchestra of about 60 (including a serpent as the bass of the wind group) and presents the oratorio in the original 1749 version, full and uncut.

It’s been argued that even in so splendid a work Handel was fallible enough to include some dead wood. McCreesh, however, stoutly defends the original structural balance. In one respect, though, he does depart from Handel’s intentions. By the time Solomon was written, he was using no castratos in his -oratorios, and the title-role was deliberately designed for a mezzo-soprano; but here the chance to secure the pre-eminent countertenor Andreas Scholl was irresistible. The colour of Handel’s predominantly female vocal casting (only Zadok and the smaller-part Levite being exceptions) is thus slightly modified. This historical infidelity is one of the few possible -reservations about the set, which is a notable achievement. McCreesh is fortunate in his cast, too. Predictably, Scholl becomes the central focus by his beauty of voice, calm authority, charm and intelligent musicianship. Inger Dam-Jensen, as Solomon’s queen, sounds suitably ecstatic in the florid ‘Blessed the day’ and amorous in ‘With thee th’unsheltered moor’, and her duet with Solomon flows with easy grace. To Susan Gritton falls the sublime ‘Will the sun forget to streak’, with its wonderful unison oboe-and-flute obbligato. As the high priest Zadok, Paul Agnew shines in the ornate ‘See the tall palm’. A more positive and audible keyboard continuo would have been welcome, but this is a minor shortcoming, and the effect of the performance as a whole is deeply impressive, with such things as ‘Will the sun’, the grave interlude to ‘With pious heart’ and the elegiac chorus ‘Draw the tear from hopeless love’ haunting the listener’s mind.

 

Susanna

Lorraine Hunt, Drew Minter, Jennifer Lane, Jeffrey Thomas, David Thomas; Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra / Nicholas McGegan

(Harmonia Mundi)

Here is a case of astonishing neglect not just gratefully but outstandingly well repaired . Not that Handel himself gave Susanna many opportunities, reviving it only once after the premiere of 1749. I t has suffered critical misunderstanding and misrepresentation over the years, but from the evidence of this superb performance, it is a work of deep seriousness, gravely moral in tone. The long opening scene, est ablishing the marital happiness of Susanna and Joacim, is unfolded with real accomplishment offering music of warmth and consequence as well for Chelsias, Susanna's father. The aria for soprano that closes the scene, "Bending to the throne of glory", strikes me as one of Handel's noblest utterances.

Susanna's two suitors are vividly portrayed; the tenor's music is infused with a kind of insinuating sensuality that perfectly captures the character's lasciviousness and the bass's is truly menacing in its directness and graphic expression. Jeffrey and David Thomas beautifully fill these portraits with a real grasp of the Handelian line and phrase. The aria for Susanna that follows, "If guiltless blood be your intent" is one of those moments where the music is extraordinarily elevating, as too is the chorus that ends the act, after an aria from Joacim which represents with dashing violins his flying home to Susanna's aid.

The soprano Lorraine Hunt, as Susanna, offers singing of great expressiveness and she rises to great heights of concentration in her arias at the heart of the work. Drew Minter's perfectly tuned, gently phrased Joacim, matches her extraordinarily well. Jill Feldman, too, offers some stylish and fresh singing.

The California-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, under Nicholas McGegan, produce a warmer, and less scrawny sound than many baroque bands but with welcomely less surface gloss. This is, in short, one of the best performances I have heard of any Handel oratorio, marked by integrity on every plane. Above all it establishes that Susanna is a work of stature that I, for one, had never suspected from previous performances or the score. An excellent recording and a first-rate booklet merely add to the pleasure of this outstanding set.

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