Handel: Deborah

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

WORKS: Deborah
PERFORMER: Elisabeth Scholl, Natacha Ducret (soprano), Lawrence Zazzo (countertenor), Ewa Wolak (mezzo-soprano); Junge Kantorei, Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra/Joachim Carlos Martini
CATALOGUE NO: 8.554785-87
‘Deborah is a failure’ was the blunt verdict of Winton Dean in his classic study of Handel oratorios. True, the score is in essence a pasticcio, cheerfully recycling and adapting music from Dixit Dominus, the Brockes Passion and various anthems —though the borrowings would not have worried the composer’s audiences one iota. More seriously, the drama – based on a particularly repulsive episode from the Book of Judges – is feeble and shapeless. But the music is often glorious, above all the eight-part choruses where Handel unleashes his unique mastery of massed choral forces. For the first time, too, he vividly characterises two opposing nations through their music: the Israelites, with their weighty counterpoint, brazen splendour and sombre chromaticism in extremis, and the pagan Canaanites, depicted in simple textures and catchy dance rhythms. This new recording, taken from a concert performance, has its attractions, notably some shapely solo singing from Elisabeth Scholl, agile and graceful in the title role, and countertenor Lawrence Zazzo as the Israelite warrior Barak. The other soloists are all competent, though their expression can be bland and their English diction vague. And while the choral singing is pleasant enough, it is often handicapped by Martini’s worthy but slightly stolid conducting (rhythms tend to amble rather than dance) and a reverberant acoustic that blurs clarity and impact. Worth hearing, certainly, though, for an extra few pounds, the Hyperion recording conducted by Robert King (on two rather than three discs), which offers a more even solo line-up, crisper direction and, more crucially, delivers a real punch in those resplendent eight-part choruses. Richard Wigmore