Handel: Belshazzar

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Dabringhaus und Grimm Gold
WORKS: Belshazzar
PERFORMER: Markus Brutscher (tenor), Simone Kermes (soprano), Christopher Robson, Patrick van Goethem (countertenor), Franz-Josef Selig (bass); Cologne Chamber Choir, Collegium Cartusianum/Peter Neumann
CATALOGUE NO: MDG 332 1079-2
The Old Testament story of Belshazzar, the decadent King of Babylon, and the prophetic writing on the wall certainly provided all the drama, exotic colour and religious fervour to fuel Handel’s creative imagination. His Belshazzar is a glorious work, full of beguiling solos and duets and a series of brilliant choruses. The accompanying booklet to this recording quite fairly claims it to be ‘one of Handel’s most dramatic oratorios’, but the performance is somewhat lacklustre. Peter Neumann’s direction has gravitas, certainly, but there are moments when it loses momentum, hampered by the weighty orchestral sound and full-bodied chorus.

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Of the cast, tenor Markus Brutscher offers a well-characterised reading of the title role, though his voice is marred by a rapid vibrato. Simone Kermes, as Belshazzar’s mother Nitocris, offers some of the finest singing on the disc, her mellifluous soprano conveying an apt sense of maternal tenderness, though it lacks conviction in the more impassioned moments. The most dramatically charged performance is given by countertenor Christopher Robson as the Persian Prince Cyrus – though intensity comes at a price, for the voice often sounds strained and unfocused.

It is hard for these singers to compare with the outstanding line-up in Trevor Pinnock’s 1990 recording with the English Concert: Anthony Rolfe Johnson – at the peak of his career – as Belshazzar and the serene Arleen Auger as Nitocris, not to mention first-class contributions from James Bowman, Catherine Robbin and David Wilson-Johnson. Pinnock’s vibrant direction produces lithe, incisive orchestral playing,

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all in all making this a hard act to follow. Kate Bolton