Thursday 19 December 2013


Handel - Belshazzar - Les Arts Florissants - William Christie
Handel's Belshazzar is one of his strongest dramatic oratorios, setting what was possibly one of the best English oratorio librettos by Charles Jennens. Now William Christie and Les Arts Florissants have chosen the work to launch their new record label. Recorded following a series of live performances last year.  A strong Anglophone cast includes Allan Clayton in the title role, Rosemary Joshua as his mother Nitocris, Caitlin Hulcup as Cyrus, Iestyn Davies as Daniel and Jonathan Lemalu as Gobrias with William Christie conducting Les Arts Florissants.

Belshazzar was something of a trial for Handel. He wrote the work in the summer of 1744, and was enthusiastic about Jennens' libretto, but wrote so much that the first act had to be severely retrenched which has perhaps left the act a little uneven in structure. But in this act Jennens gives us some magnificent moments such as the opening scene for Belshazzar's mother Nitocris contemplating the fragile destiny of Empire; Nitocris is almost entirely Jennens creation and by introducing her Jennes adds a far more human face to the drama.

Handel's problems did not stop there. For the season of 1744 to 1745 he attempted to put on a far longer subscription series than usual, this failed and he did not give the full number of performances that he planned. To cap it all, when he did perform Belshazzar in 1745 Mrs Cibber was ill which meant that a last minute re-arrangement of parts had to be made. When Handel revived it in 1751 he wrote extra music for the castrato Guadagni who sang the role of Cyrus in the revival, but as was Handel's way he did not necessarily revert to the original planned form. This means that there is a strong likelihood that Nitocris's opening scene was never performed in full during Handel's lifetime.

For this new recording Les Arts Florissants have commissioned a new edition from Pascal Duc, despite the fact that Donald Burrows has produced what one imagines to be a reasonably definitive edition. For this disc Handel's 1745 original is used, with some of the changes Handel made for Guadagni. Though, rather frustratingly the CD booklet does not give the exact details of the decisions made, for that we have to go to the printed material which will be available from Les Arts Florissants.

I missed the performance that the group gave of Belshazzar in London last year, but it received slightly mixed reviews.

From the opening of the overture it is clear that Christie's Belshazzar is dramatically vivid, with a litheness and liveliness which is all Les Arts Florissants' own. Christie's way with Handel still has a French accent to it, the way the orchestra accents and articulates the music, the textures of the material all point to a French influence. But we shouldn't labour the point, this is Handel of the very highest order.

Rosemary Joshua makes a subtle and moving Nitocris, her opening scene finely done. Joshua's voice has developed a slightly more noticeable vibrato and it took me a little time to settle to it. She is quite a light voiced Nitocris, but finely flexible and very feminine. Iestyn Davies is a similar match for her in the opening scene with the lovely Lament not thus, O Queen, in vain. Throughout Iestyn Davies makes a profoundly beautiful and carefully considered  Daniel, with consistently beautiful tone and very fine phrasing.

At this point I swapped decades and put the 1991 recording on, with Trevor Pinnock directing the English Concert. Whilst one could make something of the differences between Pinnock and Christie's direction, what really struck me was how much more text based are the performances of Pinnock's soloists (Arleen Auger and James Bowman). This is something which I felt applied to a lot of Christie's Belshazzar. The words are, generally admirably clear (though Iestyn Davies is not always ideal), but the words are not quite paramount. This is a very musical and dramatic performance, with the sense of an oratorio being a text based thing rather pushed down in the mix. Now this isn't strictly wrong, but you need to bear it in mind when thinking about buying the set.

The character of Gobrias is a problem one, the character is important to the plot and his reason for helping Cyrus against his King, Belshazzar, is a poignantly personal one. But we never love him, and he is in danger of being a prosy bore. Jonathan Lemalu sings finely and creditably, with noticeably less stress in his voice than in some of his live performances. He has a marked vibrato which, again, you need to accept. But if you compare him to David Wilson Johnson for Pinnock you can hear how a master of making music vividly gripping works.

Caitlin Hulcup is a beautifully firm voiced Cyrus, eminently sensible and moderate and she makes you care for the character rather then feeling he is just a cypher. Hulcup has a nice way with Handel's music and I certainly hope to hear her in more.

It is at the end of act one, with the entrance of Allan Clayton's Belshazzar that the dramatic pace quickens, with the king's decision to use the  Jewish sacred vessels. Allan Clayton's Belshazzar who really makes us listen. His performance is thrillingly vivid, with a very strong feel for the text and character so that oratorio come alive when he is singing. His duet with Joshua at the end of act one is very fine. Joshua does not quite match Clayton when it comes to spitting out the text, so the result pits Nitocris's mellow, very feminine, pleading against Belshazzar's vivid articulation. A nice articulation of the dramatic situation.

The drama continues into act two, with Handel clearly stimulated by both character and drama. There are well characterised opposing choruses of Persian and Babylonians, but it is the scene with the writing on the wall which captures the imagination. Christie and his forces make this scene simply thrilling aural theatre. Clayton is vibrant as Belshazzar, fully alert to the words and capable of great subtlety. Davies is musically brilliant in his aria No, to thyself thy trifles be but quite simply does not get enough of the words across, though his account of the following accompagnato is vividly theatrical. The scene closes with Nitocris's aria Regard, O son, my flowing tears which is given a profoundly moving performance by Joshua, another of the high points of the disc.

Act three is less vividly dramatic, but Handel keeps the pacing up and there are some wonderful moments with fine concluding arias for Joshua, Davies, Clayton, Lemalu and Hulcup, plus the duet for Hulcup and Joshua.

The choir of Les Arts Florissants is on thrilling form, giving us some really vivid singing. Handel puts a lot of work into giving the different choruses (Babylonians, Persians) character and the choir responds. Christie gives them some pretty lively tempos and there are some stunning moments. But, there are not many Anglophone singers in the ensemble and their vowels and dipthongs sometimes give them away.

The orchestra are on similar strong, very vivid form, contributing very much to the stimulating dramatic atmosphere which Christie creates. There is much detail to be heard, the recording brings out the vitality and theatricality that comes from the ensemble's attention to the fine detail of the music. Christie isn't particularly extravagant when it comes to the continuo, using only cello, bass, theorbo, harpsichord and organ. And thankfully his use of organ is confined mainly to the choruses, as Handel intended.

The recording venue creates quite a lively aural image, one which is bright and rather forward but with much space round the singers. It is not exactly what you imagine for Handel's oratorios (which were premiered in London theatres), but is on a par with Christie and Les Arts Florissants' re-thinking of every detail of the performance.

You wouldn't expect William Christie and Les Arts Florissants to approach one of Handel's greatest oratorios and simply re-tread paths created by others. This is very much a performance in their own image, each detail carefully thought and studied, from the very notes themselves to the performances. It is part of Christie's brilliance that he creates such a vividly dramatic result which works brilliantly on all levels. This might not always sound quite like the Handel tradition which has build up amongst British groups, but is vividly convincing. The performance has a theatrical life, is thankfully free from perversity, and is profoundly involving.

The CD is very handsomely produced, with the CD's themselves in a distinctive fold-out container. The CD booklet includes an introduction from William Christie plus articles by Donald Burrows and Pascal Duc, as well as photographs from the recording and from performances last year. There is also a new story, A Babylone commissioned from Jean Echenoz.

George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Belshazzar [165.00]
Belshazzar - Allan Clayton (tenor)
Nitocris - Rosemary Joshua (soprano)
Cyrus - Caitlin Hulcup (mezzo-soprano)
Daniel - Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor)
Gobrias - Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone)
Arioch - Jean Yves Ravoux (tenor)
Messenger - Geoffroy Buffiere (bass)
Sages - Thibaut Lenaerts (tenor), Michael Loughlin Smith (tenor), Damian Whitely (bass)
Les Arts Florissants
William Christie (conductor)

Recrorded at the Conservatoire Maurice Ravel de Levallois-Perre, 19, 20 and 21 December 2012
Les Editions Arts Florissants 3 CD's  [55.21, 68.11, 42.52]

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