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Belshazzar Sees the Writing on the Wall

available at Amazon
Handel, Belshazzar, K. Tarver,
R. Joshua, B. Mehta, RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für
Alte Musik, R. Jacobs

(released on June 14, 2011)
HMD 9909028.29 | 2h46
Handel's Messiah, because it is performed so very often, has come to represent in many listeners' minds what a Handelian oratorio is all about. In fact, it is rather unusual and does not really give a good idea of the composer's conception of the oratorio at all. Messiah does not follow a narrative in the conventional sense, there are no characters, and it has not so much a libretto as a collection of Biblical verses -- none of which has prevented people from trying to make it into a stage work. Worse, while we can still possibly enjoy a really fine performance of Messiah once in a while, its popularity contributes to the relative rarity of performances of the composer's other, generally even better, oratorios: Saul, Theodora, Solomon, Athalia, La Resurrezione, Esther, L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato, Judas Maccabaeus, and Jephtha, to name just a few.

Add to that list Belshazzar, a gorgeous piece of music set to a dramatic retelling of the fall of Babylon from the Book of Daniel (Charles Jennens wrote the libretto). It is a relatively late work, premiered in 1745, at the height of Handel's compositional powers and before his health had begun to decline. This performance was filmed at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in July 2008, a co-production with the Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin, the Innsbruckner Festwochen der Alten Musik, and the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse, where it was just performed this past May. René Jacobs led a crisp instrumental performance from Berlin's Akademie für Alte Musik, one of the best historically informed performance ensembles in the world right now, top-notch all around. The vocal cast frankly has its ups and downs. Rosemary Joshua has good moments as Nitocris, the mother of Belshazzar, but the top of her voice is a little jagged and not quite sure; Bejun Mehta is a wild-faced Cyrus, his technique pushed to the edge of surety in the florid passages; Kenneth Tarver a bold, if not particularly pretty-voiced Belshazzar; the discovery of the performance is mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammerström, with a gorgeous, silk-smooth voice and a convincingly male but otherworldly appearance as the prophet Daniel.

Seeing the singers does little to help the impression of their work, especially as the staging by Christof Nel is minimalistic enough that one wonders why he even bothered. The choral scenes (the Persian armies, the Babylonian revelers -- chorus members become some of the small parts by doing things like putting on eye glasses) and certainly the mysterious hand writing the fateful message on the wall of Belshazzar's palace are more spectacular in one's imagination (or Rembrandt's) than how they are shown here. That being said, there is no one CD recording that stands out as the one to buy either, and this 2-DVD set is comparably priced to all of them, on 3 CDs. Jacobs, or another of the world's top HIP conductors, should have this remarkable work on their "To Do" list, with a stronger cast and excellent sound. Handel's music goes well with Jennens's verse, so pleasing and snappy: "Behold the monstrous human beast / Wallowing in excessive feast! / No more his Maker's image found: / But, self-degraded to a swine, / He fixes grov'ling on the ground / His portion of the breath Divine." This comes from Gobrias's condemnation of the Babylonian celebration, the moment when the Persians decide to attack to gain the best advantage. It could have come from Dante's descriptions of gluttony.

1 comment:

Charles T. Downey said...

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