~ HWV 61 ~

DG/Archiv Trio 477 037-2
budget price

DG/Archiv 431 793-2
full price

3 CDs
Recorded in 1990.
Released in 1991.
Reissued in 2004.

Belshazzar: Anthony Rolfe-Johnson
Nitocris: Arleen Augér
Daniel: James Bowman
Cyrus: Catherine Robbin
Gobrias: David Wilson-Johnson
Arioch: Nicholas Robertson
Messenger: Richard Wistreich

Choir of The English Concert
The English Concert (on period instruments)
Trevor Pinnock (conductor)











It is curious that short periods of Handel’s life witnessed extraordinary bursts of magnificent creativity. During the few months in 1744 that produced Hercules and Belshazzar, Handel must have been in extremely fine inspired form. This makes the relative failure of both English dramas perplexing, although the first performance of Belshazzar was afflicted by enforced last minute changes to compensate for the illness of the alto Mrs. Cibber. A recently discovered letter reveals that Handel’s musicians thought Hercules one of his best compositions, and in September 1744 Handel wrote to the librettist Jennens that “Your most excellent Oratorio has given me great Delight in setting it to Musick and still engages me warmly”, so there is good evidence that both works were recognized as something special despite their box office failure. 

Belshazzar is compelling, and it deserves to be as familiar as Saul, Semele, Theodora and Jephtha have become. The fate of the hedonistic King, determined to bring about his own ruin through his alcohol-fuelled libertine lifestyle, is transformed into a tragedy by the heartfelt love and fear of his long-suffering mother Nictoris, who has converted to worshipping the true God of Israel (with aid from the conveniently placed prophet Daniel). The self-destructive King, doomed after he orders the gold vessels pillaged from the Temple at Jerusalem to be used at a drunken feast, is the model of selfish and idolatrous Kingship. In contrast, the invading Persian King Cyrus is the perfect monarch who shows dignity, compassion, modesty, respect, and wisdom. The secondary character Gobrias thirsts for revenge due to Belshazzar’s murder of his son. The emotionally complex relationships between the five main characters produce a magnificent drama comfortably on a par with more popular and familiar oratorios. 

The comparison between the morally weak Belshazzar and the enlightened new order of Cyrus is strikingly made in Belshazzar’s defiant “I thank thee, Sesach” prior to the battle, followed soon after by Cyrus’s blazing “Destructive war”, a seemingly warlike aria that is in fact a flamboyant denunciation of tyranny and unjust war. Belshazzar is full of such stuff, but the moment when Gobrias achieves his revenge upon the tyrant (“To pow’r immortal my first thanks”) is Handel at his operatic best: Gobrias says he no longer weeps except for joy, but Handel’s string accompaniment makes it manifestly clear that Gobrias will never overcome the loss of his son. Other remarkable moments include Belshazzar’s naïve feasting (“Let festal joy triumphant reign”), and the horror of the Jews when Belshazzar decides to drink from the sacred vessels (the chorus “Recall, o King, thy rash command”). 

Handel never performed Belshazzar in a version that represented the potential brilliance of the oratorio, although something like the autograph first draft completed prior to the first performance combined with a few later attractive revisions seems like a wise solution. That is exactly the approach used by Trevor Pinnock in this stunning performance. Although it was released on CD as recently as 1991, it has been unavailable for most years since. Its reissue is particularly welcome: a Handel recording featuring both Arleen Augér and Anthony Rolfe Johnson is likely to be special and a personal favourite of mine, but the cast is universally excellent and alert to the unique drama that Handel and Jennens created in this oratorio. 

Catherine Robbin’s “Destructive war” is rightly the climax of the drama, although memorable moments such as James Bowman’s interpretation of the writing on the wall abound in this performance. In fact, each musical moment in a glorious score is perfectly judged. Even more than a decade later, The English Concert still sound as if they play Handel better than almost anybody else. The trumpets are brilliant, the strings sonorous, and the continuo always supportive and free of egotistical intrusion. The Choir of the English Concert delivers the music of Persians, Babylonians, and Jews with equal passion and perfection. I am mystified why Trevor Pinnock’s rich and profoundly musical interpretation was deleted from the catalogue for so long, and even more mystified why Deutsche Grammophon have since relinquished artists of his calibre in favour of less expressive yet more ostentatious talents.

© David Vickers - June 2004

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