later revisions to his works, notably the operas and oratorios,
were undertaken due to the exigency of the moment rather
than through a desire for improvement. Works which were somewhat
unpopular could often be revived in new versions different
to, but not necessarily improvements on the original.
oratorio Belshazzar seems to have been ill-fated from
outset as the premiere was blighted by the indisposition
of Mrs. Cibber, meaning that Handel had to reallocate the
parts, even transferring most of Gobrias’s part to the tenor,
John Beard, who was singing Belshazzar. The oratorio was
not particularly popular; in fact the entire 1745 season
was one of Handel’s low points.
is pity because in Belshazzar, librettist Charles
Jennens furnished Handel with one of his most strongly dramatic
oratorios. When reviving the work in 1751 Handel undertook
revisions, some of which seem to have been at Jennens’ prompting
in order to improve sections of the work. But politics made
Handel make one crucial cut. The entire first scene was omitted.
This scene introduces Nitocris, Belshazzar’s mother. Her
dramatic recitative Vain, fluctuating state of human empire seems
to have held unpopular political resonances and hence the
scene was cut. This is doubly unfortunate; not only do we
lose the striking opening scene for Nitocris, but her subsequent
dialogue with Daniel (also cut) introduces a relationship
between the two. This makes more sense of Nitocris’s championing
of Daniel later on in the oratorio.
dwell on these issues because in this live recording of the
oratorio from the 2004 performances at Maulbronn Monastery,
conductor Jurgen Budday has chosen to base the performances
on a shortened version of the 1751 score. So not only do
we lose the opening scene, but three other arias are cut
(one each for Nitocris, Cyrus and Daniel). The result is
rather Belshazzar ‘lite’, with a running time of 147
minutes as compared to 171 minutes for Trevor Pinnock’s recording.
whilst regretting the omission of Act 1, scene 1, we must
be understanding of the need to impose cuts as these performances
were given live and few modern audiences have the stamina
to listen to the longest of Handel’s oratorios.
1745 Handel wrote for a cast of predominantly English singers
and both Cyrus and Daniel were written to be performed by
women. At the 1751 revival Daniel was still sung by a woman
but Cyrus was sung by the castrato Guadagni. The CD booklet
refers to a counter-tenor singing in the 1751 revival, but
this cannot be true; Handel never seems to have used counter-tenors
as major soloists.
this recording the roles of Cyrus and Daniel are taken both
by counter-tenors, Patrick von Goethem and Michael Chance.
Unfortunately von Goethem has a rather sharp-sounding, edgy
voice; good perhaps for some baroque repertoire, but not
for a Handel role written for a woman. He is good in the
lyrical passages but his passagework is untidy.
there is the subject of language; the English text of Handel’s
oratorios is supremely important. Von Goethem’s English is
adequate but he just does not make enough of the words in
the important recitatives.
the other alto role, Michael Chance would appear to be a
better bet. Unfortunately he seems to have been having a
slightly off day. The upper passages of his voice are lovely
and his singing is expressive as ever, but his lower register
sounds rather strained. Of course, his performance also suffers
because the cuts mean he has lost both the opening scene
and his aria from Act 3, scene 1.
the title role Mark le Brocq sings neatly and in a shapely
manner but he lacks the dramatic heft that would be ideal
in the role; it was written for John Beard who had sung Samson.
This means that le Brocq sounds too natural, too nice; he
just does not come over as a horrid tyrant.
and Handel equipped Belshazzar with extensive stage
directions; whether or not they intended the work to actually
be staged (probably not), they certainly intended their audience
to think of the work dramatically. This means that we must
expect a CD recording to similarly project the drama of the
piece. Except in the heightened drama of the writing-on-the-wall
scene, Le Brocq does not quite do this.
Allen makes the most of what is left of the part of Nitocris.
She is an Emma Kirkby pupil and has a similarly light, bright
voice. She is a singer worth listening to and creates a sympathetic
character. But she sounds far too young to be dramatically
credible as an older woman, which is a shame.
Morsch is billed as a bass, but his performance as Gobrias
sounds as if he is struggling with the lower register of
the aria. He sounds a little underpowered in the opening,
but warms up nicely. He projects the text well and conveys
something of Gobrias’s integrity and nobility.
gives the chorus plenty to do in this work; at various times
they have to represent Babylonians, Persians and Israelites.
The Maulbronner Kammerchor seizes all these opportunities.
This is a live recording, so the choral singing is not perfect
but it is certainly one of the strengths of this recording.
They make a good crisp sound and in the faster pieces sing
with a good lively bounce, whilst still finding the right
depth of tone for the darker movements. However, they don’t
make anything like enough of the words.
are well supported by the Hannoversche Hofkapelle who, on
the whole, provides clean, well articulated playing; though
there are moments of untidiness in the faster sections. Jurgen
Budday has a good feel for the structure of Handel’s music
and supports his singers well. His speeds are on the steady
side, the first Act seemed rather sluggish at times and the
drama only got going in Act 2.
is an apt record of what was probably a very exciting live
event and has been released as part of a series documenting
the Handel oratorio performances at Maulbronn Monastery.
Despite the cuts and the limitations of live performance,
it might be recommendable as a documentation of the second
version of Handel’s oratorio. But whilst I could live with
most of the cast, Patrick von Goethem certainly prevents
me from returning to the recording.
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