Handel: Oratorio Arias

Virgin Classics
VC5 45497 2
1 CD
full price
Recorded in September 2000.
Released in 2002.

  • Belshazzar
    • Destructive War – Cyrus
    • Oh sacred oracles of Truth – Daniel
  • Semele – Athamas
    • Despair no more shall wound me
    • Your tuneful voice
  • Theodora – Didimus
    • The raptured soul
    • Deeds of kindness
    • Kind Heaven
    • Sweet rose an lily
  • Saul – David
    • Brave Jonathan
    • O Lord, whose mercies numberless
  • Jephtha – Hamor
    • Up the dreadful steep ascending
    • Dull delay
  • Messiah
    • He was despised

David Daniels, countertenor

Ensemble Orchestral de Paris (on modern instruments)
Conductor: John Nelson

Constructing a CD entitled Handel Oratorio Arias for a single voice and chamber orchestra requires a choice of airs that is worth repeated listening. Imagine a CD on which an actor emotes selected Shakespeare speeches without observing the playwright’s sequence within plays and with the gaps bridged by invented blank verse, and you get some idea of the aesthetic difficulties involved. David Daniels and conductor John Nelson have come up with a medley from Saul to Jephtha in which the order of some of the airs in a work has been changed, though this can be overlooked because the recital overall still excites delight and pity. What is inevitably missing is each item’s context, the composer’s incontestable strength: sure-footed dramas that build and sustain tension over three hours of music.

While some CD booklets have acquired scholarly status, Charles Dupêchez’s notes for this recital lack credibility. They perpetuate the long-abandoned notion of Handel’s bankruptcy as a motive for turning to oratorios, and speculate that Handel’s faith was a matter of his growing older. They add that Athamas’s air “Despair no more” from Semele shows him lacking in enthusiasm – but what we hear on the disc is his jubilant glee, which belies the comment. And what is it that Dupêchez finds ‘pessimistic’ about Belshazzar? His claim that Congreve’s Semele served as a text for several operas before being taken up by Handel is puzzling: who are the composers besides Eccles?

Matters get off to a bold start with the fiery noise of victory in Cyrus’s “Destructive War” from Part 3 of Belshazzar. We are then taken to the Prophet Daniel’s prayerful homily in Part 1. There is some sustained lovely singing in this air, with our soloist showing that his forté lies in the middle to lower range of the voice. The next air on the disc is Athamas’s “Despair no more” (Semele, Part 3). Daniels gives energy to this spineless prince’s wining, and reels off the vapid prince’s bravura air with considerable aplomb. Oddly in this recital, Athamas indulges his self-pity after his empty triumph, yet “Your tuneful Voice” (Part 1) is a wonderful display of the singer’s strong lower range – fully exploited in the preference for slow-moving airs.

In Theodora we move into territory Daniels has made his own, with four airs for Didymus, the Roman-Christian soldier. There is fine dramatic singing in “The raptur’d Soul” (Theodora, Part 1), with effective contrasts between the few bars of thoughtful reflection, the sacred joy, and the resolution on action.  “Deeds of kindness” (Part 2) displays a musical oddity in that Handel’s dal segno is ignored in favour of an imposed da capo so that we get a longer air than the composer stipulated. Ho hum. To compound matters, Daniels’s decoration in the repeat A section strays uncomfortably outside the air’s tessitura. However, the call for heavenly inspiration in the first bars of “Kind Heav’n” (Part 1) is ravishingly sung, and the hushed soliloquy over the sleeping Theodora (Part 2) is enchanting. Despite the occasional blemish, this central sequence of the disc parades much beautiful singing.

The gear change into David’s lament for Jonathan and Saul (Saul Part 3) is less smooth. “Brave Jonathan” receives the lugubriously muddy accompaniment of an organ continuo (Handel did not specify this) as well as an invented closing ritornello (the original segues into a chorus). There is some strain in the singer’s upper register, but all misgivings are dispelled in “O Lord whose Mercies” (Part 1). Daniels endows the melismas on “cannot fail” with a gorgeous hue as he pleads for Saul’s sanity, and this performance is something of a challenge to the rival recording by Andreas Scholl (on the Decca recital Heroes).

But what a contrast follows: the hearty hiking air, “Up the dreadful steep ascending” (Jephtha, Part 2) shows Handel at his most vigorously mimetic and ironic in depicting Hamor’s blind optimism that shall claims his future bride Iphis. Yet this is a lover who blusters after having wimped languorously in “Dull delay” (Part 1) at the prospect of not gaining Iphis’s hand. In a delightful touch, John Nelson gets his string band to accentuate the feminizing effect of Handel’s scotch-naps. (No wonder Iphis tells Hamor off for wallowing in words instead of seeking glory.) “He was despised” (Messiah) rounds off an engagingly enjoyable concert, though it is a shame that the second section is taken faster than the largo pace of the first, so that we fail to gain the sense of witness to Christ’s scourging. There is regrettably no bassoon to add dolour to the continuo line.

The violins of the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris are nimble in roulades, the bass line drums away splendidly in the faster numbers, and both sections give a stylish accompaniment to the voice in “Your tuneful Voice”. John Nelson coaxes some fine playing from his whole band, nowhere more so than in “Despair no more”, and in the wistful air “Deeds of Kindness”. As a showcase for the remarkable voice of David Daniels, this recital reveals his effortless ease in passagework that is always deft and clear. This disc is an accomplishment, and one wonders at Daniels’s flexibility of tone and expression, his ability to characterise and enunciate most of the words, and his range of colours that enchants, persuades, and wins admiration.

© Les Robarts - August 2002

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