Handel and the Oratorio for Concerts

Chandos Chacone 0685
1 CD
full price
Recorded in 2001.
Released in 2002.

  • Samson (HWV 57): Overture; "Let the bright Seraphim"
  • Joseph and His Brethren (HWV 59): Overture
  • Semele (HWV 58): Overture; "Where e'er you walk"; Sinfonia
  • Jephtha (HWV 70): Overture; "Waft her, angels"
  • Susanna (HWV 66): Overture; "The oak that for a thousand years"
  • Judas Maccabeus (HWV 63): Overture; March; "See, the conqu'ring hero comes!"
  • Solomon (HWV 67): Overture; "Will the sun forget to streak"; Sinfonia 'The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba'

Collegium Musicum 90 (on period instruments)
Conductor: Simon Standage (violin)




The tradition of performing Handel's opera and oratorio arias with a solo violin, oboe, or flute replacing the vocal part was already established during Handel's lifetime. His regular London music publisher John Walsh made many printed editions of arias from Handel's works, both arranged as anthologies and also devoted to each individual major work. Walsh also recognised the demand for arrangements that could be performed by music societies without singers or in more domestic circumstances. Violinist Simon Standage and his ensemble Collegium Musicum 90 have already recorded an enjoyable disc of Handel's opera arias mingled with authentic versions of their respective work's overtures on Handel at the Opera. The result was charming (particularly a delicious rendering of "Verdi prati" with Standage's peerless solo violin playing), although a great deal of its included ballets and overtures from Alcina and Ariodante were already familiar from other recordings.

This new sequel disc devoted to Handel's oratorios from Samson until Jephtha is equally fine but contains a more imaginative programme that is - in some parts - a revelatory experience for Handelian listeners. For example, Collegium Musicum 90's performance of the overture from Joseph and His Brethren features some lyrical and animated playing, and is consequently a more persuasive argument in favour of this aspect of the work than its performance on the only complete recording of the oratorio by Robert King and The King's Consort. This overture, like the equivalent movements from Semele and Susanna, can hardly be described as regular recital fare, yet hearing these overtures out of their contexts reminds one that they contain the identical kind of invention and brilliance usually associated with Handel's small group of orchestral works such as Opus 6 and The Water Music.

The instrumental treatment of arias is not going to supplant the original versions, but the results are delightful. The lion's share of the "singing" roles go to oboist Anthony Robson, whose versatility is demonstrated in the light agility of "Let the bright Seraphim", and the eloquent sentimentality of "Where e'er you walk" and "Waft her, angels, through the skies". The latter is notably gorgeous, its avoidance of slushiness is not created at the expense of heartfelt communication. Many singers and conductors could learn an awful lot about the phrasing and interpretation of Handel's melodic lines from the way Standage and Robson faithfully exploit the score. A crucial factor in this approach is the strong impression that these players know exactly what Handel's music is communicating in its original dramatic context - something that even professional singers in complete performances of these oratorios do not always grasp. Collegium Musicum 90's performances are fully compliant with the vital emotional responses of Jupiter, the Queen of Sheba, or Jephtha, irrespective of its lack of text and voice.

More familiar overtures and sinfonias are also given performances well worth hearing. The horns in the overture to Samson are both robust and agile, and the oboes in the Act III Sinfonia ('The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba') from Solomon are energetic and delightfully astute to Handel's witty writing. The Collegium Musicum 90 players include the finest stalwarts of the London period instrument movement, such as Anthony Halstead (horn), Crispian Steele-Perkins (trumpet), Rachel Brown (flute), Nicholas Parle (keyboards), and, of course, Anthony Robson and Simon Standage. It therefore comes as little surprise that the music is immaculately shaped, engaging, and fully aware of Handel's colourful orchestral textures. Standage's direction matches the familiar quality and honesty of his violin playing. There is an avoidance of routine music making. Instead of prescribed formulas the listener is rewarded with speeds that are neither excessive nor laboured to either extreme, yet are always perfectly judged for the appropriate musical rhetoric. In short, solid musicianship reigns triumphant on a disc that is an absolute treasure. Very highly recommended.

David Vickers - June 2002

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