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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Belshazzar (1745/51) [147.38]
Belshazzar – Mark Le Brocq (tenor)
Nitocris – Miriam Allan (soprano)
Daniel – Michael Chance (counter-tenor)
Cyrus – Patrick von Goethem (counter-tenor)
Gobrias – Andre Morsch (bass)
Arioch – Mark Le Brocq (tenor)
A Messenger – Andre Morsch (bass)
Maulbronner Kammerchor
Hannoversche Hofkapelle/Jurgen Budday
rec. live 25-26 September 2004, Maulbronn Monastery
K &K VERLAGANSTALT KuK67 [76.01 + 71.37]


Handel’s 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.
 
His 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.
 
This 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.
 
I 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.
 
Still, 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.
 
In 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.
 
On 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.
 
Then 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.
 
In 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.
 
In 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.
 
Jennens 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.
 
Miriam 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.
 
Andre 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.
 
Handel 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.
 
They 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.
 
This 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.
 
Robert Hugill
 

 



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