The Occasional Oratorio Doppel-CD
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The Occasional Oratorio, HMV62 / Susan Gritton & Lisa Milne, sopranos - James Bowman, contreténor - John Mark Ainsley, ténor - Michael George, basse - New College Choir, Oxford & The King's Consort Choir, The King's Consort, dir. Robert King
'A very fine set, with a lot of magnificent music, played and sung as well as one could hope for' --Gramophone
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Anyway, maybe this is more of a history lesson than you need as an introduction to the oratorio. But one of the chief deficiencies of the work is that, written in haste, it recycles earlier bits from Handel oratorios and other choral works--and even robs a piece yet to come, Judas Maccabeus of the following year. To Handel's audience, the borrowing from Athalia, Israel in Egypt, and from the Coronation Anthems (a shortened version of Zadok the Priest rounds out the oratorio) was probably not an issue. After all, they hardly had this music running in their heads. But modern admirers of Handel probably do, thanks to recordings. So it's something of a letdown for me to get to Part III of the oratorio and hear a succession of numbers from Israel in Egypt. And for some listeners, the lack of a storyline may be a mark against the oratorio. This is not an Alexander's Feast, a Messiah, or a Solomon, with their well-plotted narratives, but instead a succession of Bible passages (many of them poeticized by John Milton) stitched together to praise God for His intervention against the Pretender and protection of His anointed, George II. But for me, the music is paramount. Like Israel in Egypt, the Occasional Oratorio is dominated by the chorus, and there seems to be one remarkable chorus after another in the work. Finest of all is No. 26 (Part II), in which the chorus and orchestra cheerfully mimic musical instruments such as the timbrel and psaltery. Part II ends with a Hallelujah Chorus that is just about the equal of that other, more famous one. This is Handel, after all, writing in the same decade that produced the Messiah.
Befitting the occasion, the music is often wonderfully martial, from the brassy overture--finest that Handel ever wrote--through to the jubilant reprisal of Zadok at the end. But the arias, too, many of them more reflective than the big choruses, are just as memorable and mark Handel, even working in haste, as a composer at the height of his powers. Given all that this oratorio has going for it, I tend to forget my strictures against Part III and just enjoy the show. Along with Messiah, Solomon, and Israel in Egypt, this no-name oratorio by Handel is certainly among his grandest and most powerful.
Obviously, Robert King and his forces enjoy the show as well, for this is a well-drilled, thoroughly thrilling performance from beginning to end. There is not a weak link here, and that includes the very fine soloists King has lined up for the recording. Hyperion's recording is typically big, bright, imposing. So forget the history behind the work and Handel's own self-borrowing, and just lose yourself in this grand entertainment.
There is no story to the Occasional Oratorio, and the singers are not cast as characters. It is really an extended cantata, nearly two and a half hours of it. It is all in honour of the expected or hoped-for victory of the Hanoverian army under the command of the King's youngest son William Augustus Duke of Cumberland, `Butcher Cumberland' himself, now well on his way to his final routing of Prince Charles Edward and the Jacobites at Culloden near Inverness. To this day the name `Jacobite' is a badge of nostalgic pride in the region, but the names of the towns Fort William, Fort Augustus and Fort George reflect more accurately the way things turned out. The libretto was excoriated by the splenetic Charles Jennens, Handel's collaborator on Messiah, Saul and some other oratorios, and may or may not have been the work of one Hamilton Newburgh, but for my own part I can't find much wrong with it. Handel is well equal to any challenge there may have been in providing variety and contrast, and I find the music absolutely splendid throughout, and sometimes absolutely sublime. The level of borrowing, recycling and adaptation is higher than usual, but I can't see why that should be a special issue in Handel considering that such a hallmarked official masterpiece as Bach's B minor Mass is made up of reused material from beginning to end. That was just the way things were done at that time, and rightly so in my own view. Robert King gives details of the transfers from elsewhere, all of which are familiar to me except those from Comus, and he rightly highlights the extensive quarrying Handel did in Israel in Egypt for his third act here. For all the great music it contains, I would call Israel in Egypt a thoroughly unsatisfactory composition, and it is an especial pleasure to welcome back a handful of superlative numbers in the more coherent and intelligible context of The Occasional Oratorio.
This is of course a performance in the `authentic' manner. The authentic practitioners have relaxed a good deal since their self-conscious and rather self-assertive early days. King is not afraid to take a slowish tempo where proper expression seems to require it, and the forces deployed are comparatively large, as indeed they had better be for at least two of the numbers borrowed from Israel in Egypt, namely the hailstone chorus and the chorus that now follows the opening `symphony' (2 movements from the op6 concertos) in the third act. There were apparently only three soloists in the first performances, but King very sensibly has five. The extensive soprano work is divided between Susan Gritton and Lisa Milne, and a few lower-lying items are given to the counter-tenor James Bowman, so we are in safe hands there. All of these are excellent, but my own special prizes go to the tenor John Mark Ainsley and above all to the bass Michael George whose magnificent timbre does justice and more to what is perhaps the ultimate gem of the work the aria with chorus To God Our Strength in Act II. You would be astonished if I had anything but the highest praise to offer the King's Consort, its choir and choristers, and the choir of New College Oxford, and I have no surprises for you in that respect either.
As usual, Robert King provides his own liner-note, a helpful and readable sketch of the historical background plus an endearingly enthusiastic commentary on the music in a slightly `ooh-ah' vein. I must say my eyebrows shot up several inches when he describes Zadok the Priest, the music of which Handel, with breathtaking chutzpah, adapts for his final chorus, as `Handel's most famous chorus of all' - what on earth has happened to the Hallelujah? - but this is neither here nor there, particularly when the chorus is as well done as it is. The recording, from 2004, is absolutely first-rate too, and the whole experience is one for repeated, and not occasional, listening. Any performance of The Occasional Oratorio is an occasion indeed, and it has been a privilege to have lived into the era of Handel's revival that makes such occasions possible.
The performance here is particularly blessed with such fine baroque singers as countertenor James Bowman, sopranos Susan Gritton and Lisa Milne, tenor John Mark Ainsley and bass Michael George. Robert King conducts the New College Choir, Oxford and The King's Consort with his customary flair for this music.
This is one of those recordings to buoy your spirits and throw a bit of pomp and elegance into you life. It is a pleasure! Grady Harp, September 05
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