WORKS: Alexander Balus
PERFORMER: Lynne Dawson, Claron McFadden (soprano), Catherine Denley (mezzo-soprano), Charles Daniels (tenor), Michael George (bass); Choir of New College, Oxford, King’s Consort & Choir/Robert King
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67241/2
There is no definitive version of Messiah. Handel, ever practical, as any successful artist of his day needed to be, to some extent tailored his performances to available resources. Paul McCreesh with his Gabrieli Consort, Players and a fine, evenly balanced team of soloists, have chosen a version of the oratorio which Handel himself directed at the Foundling Hospital in London in 1754. The idea is appealing, since that performance, one of Handel’s last, is well documented, providing us with some of the composer’s later thoughts on a piece which he had first performed in Dublin in 1742. McCreesh does not stick to this version to the letter, but is forthcoming about his decisions. His performance is stylish without being self-consciously so, and is without that hint of preciosity that can so bedevil some period-instrument versions. Whether or not it is ‘A Messiah for the Millennium,’ whatever that means, remains to be seen, but it is certainly a Messiah to enjoy now.
Alexander Balus is one of Handel’s least encountered oratorios. Seldom performed in concert and only once previously recorded, over thirty years ago, it has had to wait for the enterprising and industrious Robert King to achieve both within little over half a year. Beside Handel’s long line of masterpieces in oratorio form, Alexander Balus, with its Apocryphal text, makes a pale image. Thomas Morell’s libretto, confused and dramatically disjointed, offers little on the surface. Yet Handel’s sense of theatre, together with his pure musical genius, rescues it, at the same time generating a high level of interest, above all in Act III.
King and his musicians approach the piece with vitality and affection and, in so doing, carried me along from start to finish. I recall no such commitment on my part to the earlier recording which until now had left me with an unduly jaundiced view of a work well worth getting to know.