LABELS: Les Arts Florissants Editions
ALBUM TITLE: Handel: Belshazzar
PERFORMER: Allan Clayton, Rosemary Joshua, Caitlyn Hulcup, Iestyn Davies, Jonathan Lemalu; Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
CATALOGUE NO: AF 001
Have we grown too comfortable with Handel? The first release from William Christie’s own label, Editions Les Arts Florissants, suggests we have. Here is an orchestral sound of defiant grandeur, expressive and uninhibited choral singing, an energy suggestive of live performance, and a quirky balance that highlights a sinuous viola line here, a pop of bassoon there. Christie’s reading of Handel’s 1745 oratorio, in a version incorporating material prepared for its 1751 revival, is more theatrical than a good many recent opera recordings, with a vivid timbral and dynamic range.
There is more than a hint of the Hollywood epic to Handel’s score: the chaste restraint of the Chorus of Jews, the boozy hedonism of the hard-partying Babylonians, the flinty figures that trace the writing on the wall. Allan Clayton is suitably reckless as the orgy-loving, polytheistic despot. Iestyn Davies is poised and pure-toned as the prophet Daniel in the cantorial melismas of Act II. Jonathan Lemalu’s Garrick Club diction spices up the role of Gobrias, while Caitlin Hulcup is a forthright, attractive Cyrus and Rosemary Joshua navigates Nitocris’s spiritual and emotional journey exquisitely. Christie’s Francophone choir has been well coached, with only a fractional sagging of pitch in the a capella sections. The ‘as live’ quality is not blemish free, but the whole is so dynamic as to raise the Handelian bar.