- HWV 61 -

MDG 332 1079-2
3 CDs
mid price
Recorded in 2001.
Released in 2001.

Belshazzar: Markus Brutscher
Simone Kermes
Patrick van Goethem
Christopher Robson
Franz-Josef Seelig
Frank Höndgen

Kölner Kammerchor
Collegium Cartusianum (on period  instruments)
Conductor: Peter Neumann



“Your most excellent Oratorio has given me great Delight in setting it to Musick and still engages me warmly.” wrote Handel to his librettist Charles Jennens in September 1744. It seems the London public did not share the composer’s enthusiasm, and Belshazzar was performed only three times during the 1744-1745 season, although some confusing last minute changes in the text and cast probably did not help.

The story, taken from the Bible, Herodotus and Xenophon, is about the fall of the Babylonian king Belshazzar. Cyrus and his Persian army besiege the city in which the Jews are held prisoner.  Whilst the Babylonians are celebrating one of their Gods and offending Jews by using their temple vessels, they have a vision of a hand writing on the wall. The Babylonians fail to interpret the writing and thus Nitocris, Belshazzar’s mother, suggests he asks the Jewish prophet Daniel. He is able to interpret the writing and foretells the fall of the Babylonian Empire. Persians finally enter the palace and Belshazzar is killed in the battle.

This oratorio, about pride, chastisement and conversion, is built around three poles (Belshazzar and the Babylonians; Cyrus and the Persians; Daniel and the Jews) and one central character (Nitocris). The absence of any love relationship and the antiheroic death of Belshazzar, together with the despair and thirst for vengeance of the secondary character Gobrias, makes this one of Handel’s darkest works. It is certainly one of Handel’s best dramatic oratorios, containing particularly dramatic accompanied recitatives, and both beautiful arias and grand choruses that represent splendid characterizations. Indeed, there are so many extraordinary moments in this score it is impossible to list them all. The very first scene, entirely devoted to Nitocris in this recording (Peter Neumann has not recorded Daniel’s aria “Lament not thus, oh Queen.”) makes a moving prologue.  The drama is all the more extraordinary because of the excellent homogenous interpretation.  All the soloists are very attentive to the text, and demonstrate particular involvement in it. Nevertheless, two singers have to be distinguished: Christopher Robson’s performance is very erratic, between beautiful and almost unbearable moments. On the other hand, Simone Kernes is a model of fine and intelligent singing. Peter Neumann’s conducting deserves every praise: homogeneity, accuracy, colours, dramatic intensity, dynamics, the blend of the choir, and the stylish playing of the orchestra are all remarkable, and the balance between articulations and legato is exemplary.

Some cuts are regrettable, and more varied interpretation in the few da capo arias would have been welcome. Yet Peter Neumann’s vision of Belshazzar seems to open a direct passage between Jennens and Handel to the audience, and thus achieves a rare alchemy between poetic and musical elements. Trevor Pinnock’s recording of Belshazzar (currently unavailable) was a respectable achievement, but Neumann and his team have unveiled a worthy competitor. The sound quality of the MDG recording is excellent. A recording worth having in any Handelian collection.

© Philippe Gelinaud - November 2001

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