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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Joshua (1748)
Joshua - Kenneth Tarver (tenor)
Caleb - Tobias Berndt (bar)
Othiel - Renata Pokupić (mezzo)
Achsah - Anna Dennis (sop)
Angel - Joachim Duske (tenor)
NDR Chor
FestspielOrchester Göttingen, Laurence Cummings (direction)
Recorded live at the Göttingen International Handel Festival, 29 May 2014
ACCENT ACC26403 [47:43 + 68:02]

Joshua is one of Handel's so-called "victory oratorios": like the Occasional Oratorio, Alexander Balus and, most famously, Judas Maccabeus, it is one of the London works in which Handel used his musical subject to reflect and celebrate the victory of the Duke of Cumberland's Hanoverian forces over the Jacobite armies of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The conquest of Canaan lends itself to that theme fairly easily, but this is never mere tub-thumping. In fact, Joshua is a work of great sensitivity and breadth, including orchestral fireworks for the fall of Jericho and, most impressively of all, a very inventive treatment of the moment where the sun stands still.

The Göttingen International Handel Festival are experts in this sort of repertoire, and they have assembled a very good cast for this 2014 performance. Kenneth Tarver's bright, pingy tenor is more used to bel canto roles, but he actually suits the divinely ordained military leader very well, and he slots into the Baroque technique very convincingly, to my ears. His voice is clean, flexible, very beautiful and fully inside the demands of the style, and he is the finest thing about this recording, delivering a masterclass of Handel singing. While Kidron's brook is full of pastoral beauty, and his coloratura is very impressive in Haste, Israel, haste, as well as in the battle scenes. He is beautifully lyrical in the Passover prayer but raises impressive grandeur for the big moments of the final act. As Caleb, Tobias Berndt has an authoritative voice, and his English is only slightly accented. He is especially beautiful in the lovely Shall I in Mamre's fertile plain, the moment where the aged Caleb gets to enjoy his inheritance in Canaan, and the subsequent, meditative chorus continues the mood beautifully. The small role of the Angel isn't successful, however, as Joachim Duske's singing is slight and unfocused, while his English is rather too accented for comfort.

Anna Dennis is a rich, sympathetic Achsah, full of pathos or joy as needs be, creamy and sumptuous into To vanity and earthly pride, and conjuring up both drama and beauty for the scenes where her lover Othniel is in danger. In that castrato role, Renata Pokupić is a little less steady than her colleagues, seemingly a little less comfortable with both the language and the tessitura.  She is finally heroic in Place danger around me, however, and the two lovers' voices blend beautifully in their duets.

The chorus are all-important in this work, and the NDR Chor do not disappoint, with very good English and flexible singing that responds fittingly to every situation. The occasional orchestra are also great, the trumpets and drums revelling in the full ceremonial moments of the battles, and the various instrumental solos sounding very good, especially the winds which mimic the birds in Hark, 'tis the linnet. Laurence Cummings directs the whole thing with an unfailing ear for the drama but never losing sight of the music's beauty.

There isn't a lot of competition for Joshua on disc, so this one is all the more to be welcomed, if you can put up with the occasional accents of the non-Anglophone members of the cast. I suspect, though, that if you already have Robert King's 1990 King's Consort recording, then you won't be tempted to swap it. The packaging contains the text, alongside a contextual essay and cast biographies. The recorded sound is very good indeed, with the audience so well behaved that you forget they are there until they break into applause at the end of each disc.

Simon Thompson


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