Handel Alexander Balus

Author: 
Stanley Sadie

Handel Alexander Balus

  • Alexander Balus

Alexander Balus has never been one of Handel’s more popular oratorios. That is mainly because its plot is by modern standards lacking in drama and motivation, and accordingly does not call forth the vein of his music that nowadays has the strongest appeal. It tells a tale – from Maccabees, in the Apocrypha, following up the success of Judas Maccabaeus – of treachery by Ptolomee, King of Egypt, against Alexander, King of Syria and the husband of his daughter Cleopatra (no relation to the famous one), who is allied to the Jews, under Jonathan. (Jonathan by the way is a brother of Judas Maccabaeus, not, of course, as the booklet here oddly claims, of Alexander: he and Alexander proclaim themselves brothers in Morell’s libretto, but only as allies – much as, for example, Rabin and Arafat might have done.) Alexander Balus is essentially a sentimental drama, one in which the interest centres on the various characters’ emotional reactions to their situations, amatory, political and religious, and these are rather static in the first two acts but much more powerful in the more eventful third with the deaths of both Alexander and Ptolomee. To an eighteenth-century audience – and in saying this I am leaning on Ruth Smith’s fascinating book, Handel’s Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought (Cambridge University Press: 1995), which throws so much light on Handel and his times – it would have had resonances in terms of contemporary politics and religion, and in particular it explains, by analogy with English Protestantism, the seemingly smug attitude (pilloried by Winton Dean in his great study of the oratorios, Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques; Oxford University Press: 1959) taken up by the Jews: everything would have been all right if only they had the right religion. Understanding its background helps you to understand why the music is as it is, so it is a pity that the otherwise informative note here touches on none of this.
It seems to me astonishing that not a single note from this fine work is currently listed on the Gramophone Database; as far as I can discover, only one recording has ever been issued, in German, on the whole poorly done and heavily and destructively cut (Musica Rara, 11/67 – nla). With this issue, Handel’s English oratorios are at last all available. Here we have a very capable, idiomatic, sensibly cast and complete performance under Robert King. The choruses seem to me especially accomplished. There are three types of chorus: those for the Jews, mostly in solemn, contrapuntal style, and culminating in a rather sombre offering of praise to God, in G minor, reflecting the tragic situation at the end of the work; those for the ‘Asiates’, jolly, foursquare in rhythm, in block harmonies of a fairly primitive kind (much more tonic and dominant than Handel normally allowed himself) – a commentary on these less civilized nations; and some of a ‘Greek chorus’ type, an external observation on the action – there is a noble, C minor ‘Calumny’ chorus, akin to those on jealousy and envy in Saul and Hercules, a high point of the score although marginal to the main plot of the work. The New College Choir, supported by men from The King’s Consort Choir, are confident, bright-toned and vigorous, clean in line and well balanced.
Another feature of Alexander Balus is the richness and originality of the scoring in the airs for Cleopatra. Her very first is almost comparable with her namesake’s “V’adoro pupille” in Giulio Cesare. The accompaniment calls for a pair of flutes, strings with two extra cello parts, harp and mandolin, bassoons and continuo, and has a prominent series of plucked-string solos harmonically enriched by two pizzicato cellos. Lynne Dawson sings it beautifully in her firm and resonant soprano and her usual poised and unaffected style. Unfortunately there is half a bar missing in my review copy, but Hyperion assure me that this has now been corrected; there are also some additions to the plucked texture in the final ritornello. This is soon followed by two more airs, the first, “Subtle love”, with elaborate lines, the second a characteristic dance-like piece: both are done charmingly. Dawson’s singing is one of the happiest features of this set, even if just occasionally there is a note that isn’t an immediate bull’s-eye. Her singing of the lamenting music in the final act is particularly moving, both “O take me from the hateful light” (echoes in the orchestra here of Acis, “Heart, the seat of soft delight”, also sung in mourning for a beloved), and then the final “Convey me to some peaceful shore”, a lonely, finely held line against a quiet, detached accompaniment. Cleopatra has a couple of duets, one with some attractive interplay with the secondary character Aspasia, sung with much assurance by Claron McFadden.
One curious feature of the score is the way in which the characters often have two airs in immediate succession. Alexander goes one better in Act 2 in this version, with three; Handel’s final text for the work places one of them in Act 1, but King follows the less logical version of the 1748 first performance. In this mezzo role Catherine Denley sings with much confidence and directness in music that isn’t all of special individuality. There is charm in her pastoral piece early in Act 1 and plenty of vigour in the displaced movement, “Mighty love”, and his ‘Fury’ air in Act 3. Jonathan is sung fluently and warmly, but very plainly, by Charles Daniels. “Hateful man”, early in Act 2, comes across vividly, and he sings the Act 3 prayer, with its intertwining violin accompaniment, appealingly. Lastly there is Michael George, ideally suited to the villainous Ptolomee, with his forceful (but always musical) manner and the touch of blackness in his tone.
The orchestral playing is accomplished, often (possibly too often) rather carefully shaped. The recitative moves at a steady but natural pace; once or twice I thought the elision of cadences wasn’t ideally managed. Ornamentation is generally modest. I am sure all Handelians will want this set, and others should not be put off by the indifferent press Alexander Balus has had from time to time: the master’s voice is unmistakable, and always worth hearing. '

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