- A pasticcio oratorio compiled by John Christopher Smith Jr. -
Recorded in 2000
Shepherd: Linda Perillo, soprano
Asaph: Francine van der Heijden, soprano
Abigail: Maya Boog, soprano
David: Knut Schoch, tenor
Nabal: Stephan McLeod, bass
Barockorchester Frankfurt (on period instruments)
Conductor: Joachim Carlos Martini
Note: Previously issued on the Junge Kantorei recording label, with extensive booklet notes in German.
Nabal is a curiosity from 1764. It has words by Thomas Morell and others, with music taken from various works by Handel, with recitatives and perhaps one air by John Christopher Smith Jnr. It was a commercial venture seeking to tap into a continuing demand for Lenten oratorios by Handel after 1759, the year of his death. A few of his sacred works had been revived in his last years, and Nabal seems to perpetuate this tradition of musical archaeology. Handel had collaborated with Morell as librettist for The Choice of Hercules and for The Triumph of Time and Truth, both of which revived pre-existent music by the Master. We need not condemn, therefore, Morellís attempts to prolong the aesthetic of that collaboration after 1759. With regard to the creation of Nabal, Morell appears the prime mover, with Smith, an experienced musician under Handel's tutelage and direction, as music arranger, director, and composer of the recitatives.
Importantly for lovers of Handel's music, Nabal represents something of special interest: Morell sought to arouse interest in the treasures in Handel's works, other than the oratorios, which had not been heard for some time. Nabal is thus the first attempt after Handel's death to develop interest publicly in the composerís opera music. The Christian dedication in Greek text on the front page of the wordbook for Nabal says "He is not dead having died", though it is conceivable that Morell also intended it to refer to Handelís music. The choice of musical numbers shows sensitivity on the selectorsí part towards the riches that Handel had left behind.
Morell was Handel's final librettist and author of more librettos for the composer than any other. With his unique insight into the composerís world, he was able to provide a new context for old arias, duets and choruses. No accompanied recitatives from the operas or oratorios found their way into the Ďnewí work they relied on the original surroundings for their meaning Ė and the music considerably determined Morellís choice of verse form, metre, diction, and syntax from which to make a viable narrative. He provided English words for Italian arias with ease, adapting with some facility the operasí Italian iambics to their English counterpart, including careful placing of Handel's decoration of Italian verbs or abstractions on an appropriate English equivalent or sound.
Nabal has no pretensions. It has enough light-hearted numbers and contrasting contemplative ones to provide a pleasant, if short, evening in the theatre. The text makes no attempt to plumb the depths of human nature Ė the peculiar territory in the oratorios of Handel and his librettists working together. Reading twenty first-century dramatic values into Nabal misses the point. We are much more aware of Handel's operas and oratorios than were Morell's contemporaries, and we have probably heard some of the composerís works more frequently than he ever did. To blame Morell for 'poor' words and a lack of 'drama' contorts his prime concern, which was to hear some agreeable music in a theatre. Nabalís performance in 1764 allowed some of its audience their first opportunity to hear an orchestra play numbers which had previously been available in printed score only.
The story of Nabal is derived from 1 Samuel 25, which might be essential reading for us in order to get the gist, but not for Morell's audience, who knew their Bible much more thoroughly than we do today. Musical delight mixes uneasily (for us) with stiff Protestant doctrine. For the often-penurious Morell, however, the hoped for income stream did not flow from Nabal, and though he made a further attempt with Gideon in 1769, after that there was no more on the libretto front from him.
ĎNabalí means Ďfoolí in Hebrew, and the story of this rich landowner who requites evil for Davidís good and then dies of a stroke provided Morell with just enough incident to contextualise the musical selection from the operas and oratorios. He illustrated the Biblical theme of a personís duty to repay good with good and how the land represents Godís relationship with man. Simple situations were contrived for singers to display contrasting emotions in the voice.
Part 1 of Nabal deals with the Lord's goodness to man and manís gratitude for the boon. Contrast with such grace is provided by Nabal's country pleasures, which are carnal and not religious. Part 2 sets up a confrontation between David's emissary Asaph and Nabal. Asaph pleads for food to ease the famine in David's land; it is a gift requested in return for the past favours of protecting Nabal from his enemies and not plundering his estate while doing so. Nabal rejects the obligation, questioning David's authority and right of expectation, and thus God's law of righteous reciprocation. The chorus of Nabalís attendants (farmers?) celebrates the productivity of their sheep. Meanwhile, Abigail, Nabal's wife, "united to a Churl", yearns for a life of spiritual comfort. She is warned by a shepherd of the approach of David's army bent on revenge for Nabal's ingratitude. Aware of David's plight, her ploy is to approach him "Charg'd with Provisions" and plead that Nabal's people should not suffer on account of their master. Her ploy appeases David's anger.
Part 3 begins with Nabalís death agony (Smith's recitative here is reminiscent of Purcell's cold music in The Fairy Queen). His death is announced and his attendants reflect on the "slow Degrees [of] the Wrath of God". Abigail asks David for protection. (She is announced as a "relief" in Martini's version, though for Morell she is Nabalís "Relict".) Her demeanour engages David's impressionable emotions, love ensues, and the oratorio ends with a celebration of the "Thrice happy, happy Pair". The "Thrice happy Sheep" in Part 2 and the loving pairís threefold happiness testify that God's creatures are finally in harmony with the Lord.
This is the first recording of Nabal. Filling a gap is all very well, but the sadness of this recording is that it misrepresents Handel, Morell, and Smith. Is Naxos cashing-in on the upsurge in interest in Handel's music? Perhaps their commercialism is no different from Morell and Smithís, yet this is a low-key performance by youthful voices in a work which needs all the help it can get. And neither is the performance an accurate rendering of Morellís intentions (I have not accessed Smithís autograph score, so cannot comment on the musical arrangement). Morellís wordbook for Nabal notes those airs and duets that were to be given repeats of the A section, but Joachim Carlos Martini, the conductor, adds repeats where they are not marked in the original wordbook. What is worse, horror to relate, Martini adds a whole raft of ballet music, a genre utterly alien to a Lenten oratorio in English. Morell the parson would not have countenanced ballet in a sacred work.
The singing does not get off to a good start and no improvement follows. Knut Schoch is a weak David. Though his voice is tenorino, a voice especially suited to the softer passions, he does not muster sufficient feeling in the airs to render them persuasive. David's description of the Lord's gift of manna (using Grimoaldo's "Prigionera ha l'alma in pena" in Rodelinda) comes across as merely sounding the notes rather than acting out the situation. It has to be said that for all performers on this recording no one item is praiseworthy, though Maya Boog as Abigail supplies a pleasantly light and bright soprano throughout, with some tasteful decorations in repeats. But the weakest link is Stephan MacLeod's Nabal, which fails to convey any notion of villainy. His deficiency is assisted by the intrusion of organ continue for his recitatives. It seems to be acceptable these days to accompany anything remotely Christian with an organ, but surely not an unrepentant Nabal. The sound is awful because its sobriety clashes with Nabalís nastiness. Martini gives him a buckshee da capo in "Still fill the Bowl" ("Finche lo strale", Floridante) which prolongs our aural agonies. Francine van der Heijden competently sings Asaph, and Linda Perilloís Shepherd is also acceptable.
Then there is the chorus, Junge Kantorei. Their irregular phrasing in "The Righteous shall be had" ruins one of Handel's most lyrical choral movements, and they labour breathily with Morell's Christian paradoxes in the chorus "The Lord, our Guide" (Joseph), failing to point the words and thus the meaning. The chorus is sometimes either early or late on its entry. As for Martiniís conducting, the interludes of dances, though irrelevant nonsense, are spiritedly executed. And an organ accompanies the pastoral air ("Replicato al ballo" (Il Pastor Fido and The Triumph of Time and Truth) which should sound "Gay and Light". This whole scene in Part 2 lacks the Hedonism Morell intended and therefore falls considerably short of what Morell and Smith must have hoped for. By the way, Morell notes that the first da capo in the piece should be the air "Sing we the Feast" ("Bella sorge", Arianna).
The orchestral sound of the Barockorchester Frankfurt is slender. Why is it assumed that Baroque music requires an 'authentic' thinness of string sound? It doesn't. Handel's band was large, accused of being noisy (Pope's The Dunciad IV gives some evidence for this). Martiniís oboes are too often indistinct, and in the chorus the whole wind band is not sufficiently assertive. Oddly, the organ does not support the choral parts (and was arguably used in the pastoral choruses in The Triumph of Time and Truth, but not here). The harvest scene in Part 2 lacks zest Ė and where are the horns?
Oh, the pity of it all. I suppose we should be grateful to hear Smithís recitatives and ďWhen Beauty Sorrowís Livery wearsĒ (music by Smith?). The CD gives no information on the work or on Smithís part in the enterprise. Had Martini's role been curatorial (to play the notes and words as written by Handel, Morell, and Smith) we could have celebrated his achievement, but as presented on this CD his efforts are to be regretted.
© Les Robarts - August 2002
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