- pasticcio by J.C. Smith Jr. & Thomas Morell -

Naxos 8.557312-13
2 CDs
Budget Price
Recorded in 2003.
Released in 2004.

David Cordier, countertenor
Barbara Hannigan, soprano
Stephan MacLeod, bass
Linda Perillo, soprano
Knut Schoch, tenor
Nicola Wemyss, soprano

Junge Kantorei
Frankfurt Barockorchester (on period instruments)
Director: Joachim Carlos Martini




How best to review a thing of shreds and patches? The label says it is by Handel, though more than a third was composed by JC Smith, son of Handel’s secretary. Compiled after Handel’s death, there is still much to delight the listener in this gallimaufry of the new and old. It has a selection of items that is a tribute to three individuals: the discretion of Smith and his librettist Thomas Morell, who had worked closely with Handel for the composer’s last fifteen years, and to the determination of Joachim Carlos Martini to bring this repertory to our attention. The result is no lost masterpiece; but it is certainly an interesting shard of musical archaeology. Gideon was a noble, if financially speculative, venture to prolong the Master’s posthumous presence in London, and provided what might well have been London premieres of items from his early works.

The sprightly overture introduces Smith’s talents as a composer and the Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra as appropriate interpreter of the unmistakably ‘British’ atmosphere of the music: it is gently airy, unpretentiously elegant yet sprightly. The conductor, Martini, is to be thanked for highlighting this corner of British musical heritage. He and his band lead us in a game of spotting musical anachronism, as we try to detect how Smith’s music contrasts with Handel’s from sixty years before. The synthesis isn’t always happy, but when Smith gives full rein to his powers of invention he proves perfectly capable of providing music to invite our interest. His accompanied recitatives in Part 3, like his airs, are technically adept, and some are charmingly reminiscent of Boyce (e.g. ‘May kind Angels’). His choruses may be foursquare, with little polyphony, but commendably he seemed well aware of the danger of inviting damaging comparisons between his music and Handel’s.

The main weaknesses of the performance quickly become evident. The use of an organ for recitatives deadens any quickening of the action; the singers rarely animate their lines, e.g. in the first recitative ‘wrestless’, ‘horrid’, and ‘wretched’ deserve greater bite from Linda Perillo—Smith’s formulaic secco recitative needs all the help it can get. The chorus of the Junge Kantorei take some time to get into their stride. Choral entries in the first chorus, ‘Comfort us, O Lord’, are not clean, though by the end of the oratorio they are incisive and spirited. The main strengths of the performance unfortunately lie not with the soloists, who often have unpromising material to sing (words and music), but with the orchestra and Martini. Pleasing obbligato bassoons in ‘Return, tumultuous ruin shun’ caress their notes, the consistent bite of the strings, and the space that Martini gives to the tremendous final chorus, ‘Wondrous are thy works, O Lord’ (aka ‘Gloria Patri’) convince us to take this work seriously. Nothing is rushed.

Not all of Smith’s realisations of Handel are effective, however. ‘Destroy these idols’ sounds like a gentle invitation to pastoral sport, and the adaptation of ‘Süsse Stille’ for ‘Israel’s guardian, sole creator!’ is insipid. (Smith and Morell showed great insight in bringing to the notice of their compatriots some of the Neun deutsche Arien.) Responsibility for our knowing what is going on relies on reports: Morell delayed the switch in the drama from absence to presence, and Oreb and Gideon have no ‘personality’ when they do appear (probably deliberately). In the recitatives the singers and Martini, with their deadpan delivery and delayed or slow final recitative cadences, do not assist in injecting some life into the piece. Soloists are not flatteringly recorded, and while Barbara Hannigan possesses a brightly appealing soprano, none of the other voices is strong enough to convince us that some drama lurks in the work. The brief trio in Part 2, ‘From the mountain’s brow’, is agreeable, but, like the rest of the items, is devoid of any decoration—though, in view of inanimate delivery, this is probably a good thing.

Part 3 stands apart. It is mainly by Smith and is musically the best Part because it is as near a unified conception as Morell and Smith could hope. Martini leads his forces in a stirring rendering of ‘Let Jehovah’, the choral basses being particularly strong. I love the emphatic vocal stabs on each word in ‘we will doubt no more’. The accompanied recitatives build up an effectual series of scenes, which include Smith’s satisfying stylishness in the air ‘Tho’ now fall’n’, sung effectively by Nicola Wemyss, to give the last part of the work a real musical boost. Morell’s stern moral teaching and Smith’s lightness of touch provide us with a curiosity that is well worth hearing.

© Les Robarts - September 2004

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