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Alexander Balus, Oratorio
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Détails sur le produit
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Descriptions du produit
Description du produit
Alexander Balus brings to completion The King's Consort's series of Handel's four 'military' oratorios (the other three being Judas Maccabaeus, The Occasional Oratorio, and Joshua). The story is a somewhat embellished retelling of chapters 10 and 11 from the first book of the Apocryphal Maccabees and involves complicated intrigues between the Jews, Syrians and Egyptians in the second century BC. To cut a long story short, Alexander Balus, King of Syria, is eventually defeated in battle by Ptolomee of Egypt and then killed by an Arab; but Ptolomee himself dies just three days later allowing Jonathan, the Chief of the Jews, to remind us of the fate of those who do not believe in the One God. Musically, Handel is at his very best in this piece. Much of the composition occurred simultaneously with that for Joshua and there is, typically, a small amount of material recycled from earlier works. The Third Act, where Cleopatra is not only told (maliciously) by her father that her beloved Alexander has been faithless, but is also then informed of his death, sees some extraordinary aria-writing, at times reminiscent of 'Dido's Lament'.
AMERICAN HANDEL SOCIETY RECORDING PRIZE 1997 'This is a landmark in recording history ... Self-recommending, I think' (The Sunday Times) 'All Handelians will want this set' (Gramophone) 'An outstanding recording … an enthralling experience' (Choir & Organ) 'A winner … one of those experiences where you know almost from the first chord that an enjoyable and rewarding evening lies ahead of you. The cast is on top form' (Early Music) 'A very well sung and very welcome appearance of one of Handel's most rarely performed works … For her [Lynne Dawson] interpretation alone the recording is worth buying' (Classic CD) 'We may be grateful that yet another glory has been restored by Robert King and his accomplished forces' (The Times) 'King and his musicians approach the piece with vitality and affection and, in so doing, carried me along from start to finish' (BBC Music Magazine) 'Lynne Dawson y rayonne en princesse meurtrie; Catherine Denley trouve ice l'un de ses meilleurs emploie. Bel et bon orchestre, choeur impeccable. Pour quelques grands moments et tout un acte de béatitude, tendez les deux oreilles à Alexander Balus' (Diapason, France) 'The set deserves a warm welcome from all Handelians' (Hi Fi News) 'A landmark in discographic history. We must be grateful for so splendid a debut recording. All the soloists are excellent' --(American Record Guide)
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Alexander Balus, who has recently conquered the throne of Syria, offers his friendship to Ptolemee, the King of Egypt. Love soon blossoms between Alexander and Ptolemee's daughter Cleopatra. The highlights of the opening scene include Cleopatra's air "Hark! hark! he strikes the golden lyre" the chorus of Asiates' "Ye happy nations round". My favourite part of Act I is Scene Three, when Cleopatra and her attendant, Aspasia, discuss and anticipate the merits of true love in a lovely series of arias culminating in a stunning, joyful and utterly thrilling duet "O what pleasures past expressing". For this duet alone, it is beyond belief that Alexander Balus is so little represented on the stage and in the recording studio.
In Act II Alexander asks Ptolomee for his daughter's hand in marriage and Ptolomee obliges, sending word that his bride awaits him at Ptolomais. However, a courtier then appears bringing word that there is a plot against Alexander's life - the would-be assassin being none other than Jonathan, chief of the Jews and Alexander's friend and brother! Alexander is horrified, and Jonathan dismayed by the slight; even Cleopatra (still awaiting Alexander's arrival) becomes apprehensive, though she knows not why, and is comforted by Aspasia. Next, Ptolomee's scheming is revealed - "yes, I've fawn'd, but only to devour." The wedding takes place as Act II draws to a close.
Act III opens with Cleopatra awaiting Alexander in a garden; she sings a gentle air, "Here amid the shady woods". The peaceful scene is interrupted by the entrance of ruffians sent by Ptolomee to return his daughter to him so that she may be married to Demetrius, whom Ptolomeee intends to install on Syria's throne as a puppet monarch. There follows the reaction of Alexander (the marvellous "Fury with red sparkling eyes"), Jonathan and Aspasia as Ptolomee's scheming treachery becomes apparent.
Meanwhile, Cleopatra will have none of her father's attempts to paint Alexander the villain and he the concerned father - and Ptolomee leaves for battle. Soon Cleopatra is brought news of her husband's death - the lamentative aria that follows, "O take me from this hateful night", is truly one of the most haunting that Handel ever wrote. Next she is brought the news of the death of her father too - and by now she has moved beyond grief and asks only for the gift of serenity in the unique and deeply, deeply moving "Convey me to some peaceful shore".
As for the quality of the recording, I have already said that it's excellent. Catherine Denley is a very convincing Alexander, delivering a flawless vocal and dramatic performance. Lynne Dawson, one of Britain's best-loved sopranos, sings the part of Cleopatra wonderfully, and Claron McFadden is very well suited to the part of Apsasia. Michael George is suitably villainous, though he and, especially, Charles Daniels could have done with being in slightly better voice (not that either of them were in bad voice as such, but they, or Daniels at any rate, just sounded a little constricted). Robert King's conducting and the King's Consort's performance is exciting, flowing and thoughtful in terms of the drama, and the choir does a good job too. The recording lacks some of crispness that one is used to from recent recordings on Erato, for example, and may not exhibit the finesse or firm grasp one associates with William Christie or Marc Minkowski, but that's me thinking wishfully how nice it would be if either of those conductors would record it . . . That said, this recording is well-worth the investment and, though I would like to give it four-and-a-half stars in anticipation of an ideal recording, the five stars I have given it are well-deserved.
Morell's text is based on the First Book of Maccabees. It differs from most of the oratorios in keeping the chorus mainly to a role of setting the scene and summing up at the end of each act or scene, much as in Hercules. There is little overt drama or action until near the end of act II, but the golden flow of Handel's infinite musical inspiration keeps me mesmerised all the way. He displays a formidable box of instrumental tricks in Cleopatra's long aria `Hark! Hark! He strikes the golden lyre', but this is only one in a glorious series of solos until a new note is introduced with the attempt by the Sycophant Courtier to sow discord, after which the general tone becomes not only more varied but more solemn. The chorus `O calumny' that ends act II scene 1 is a very different proposition from the magnificent earlier choruses, and Jonathan's aria `To God who made the radiant sun', and later Cleopatra's `O take me from this hateful light' are among the most awesome that Handel or any man ever conceived.
The part of Balus is an alto part, sung here by Catherine Denley. She handles it very well indeed, but the really striking roles are those of the Israelite prince Jonathan and the Egyptian Ptolemy's daughter Cleopatra, superbly put across by Charles Daniels and Lynne Dawson. In fact all five principals are excellent, pure in tone and impeccable in intonation, and so are the three minor parts sung by members of the choir of the King's Consort. The choirs have boy trebles and altos, and their tone is strong, contributing due weight to Handel's choral writing, incomparably the greatest there can ever have been. The instrumentalists are eminent specialists performing to the peak of their talent, and the recorded sound, from 1997, is beyond criticism.
As usual with Robert King's productions, he contributes his own admirable liner note, and both this and the libretto have translations into French and German. He does not actually tell us why the Israelite princes are invoking Mithra in the early stages of the work, but this theological aberration is explained and put right in the sublime aria for Jonathan that I mentioned above, in which Jehovah is restored to his rightful place.
We have the opportunity now to restore Handel to his rightful place also, and my bewilderment at how this supereminent musical creator ever sank below the horizon as he did is only matched by my relief at having lived through the age that is rectifying the matter. Before long my collection of his oratorios will be complete, and that is a project I would like to exhort as many as possible to join me in. There are 17 of them on my counting, which is the `best' I would not know how to assess, but if, say, 13 or 14 of them are equal first this would be one of the 13 or 14.
Having just now listened again to Handel's masterpiece, 'The Messiah', I can appreciate why 'Alexander Balus' and 'Joseph...' and all of Handel's other Oratorios have slipped into obscurity, as 'Messiah' is so much better overall, and transcendently beautiful in the famous Halleujeh chorus. But if you simply can't get enough of Herr Handel in the Messiah, this is a great 'extra' attraction.
The English mezzo-soprano, Catherine Denley, an oratorio specialist sings the title role on this recording. Although none of her arias appealed to me as strongly as 'Convey me to some peaceful shore' or "Hark! hark! he strikes the golden lyre,' she is wonderfully expressive in 'Fury, with red sparkling eyes' and also sings an appealing duet with Cleopatra upon their marriage.
Alas, the male vocalists were not up to the high standards set by Lynne Dawson and Cathrine Denley. Michael George, the bass who sings the villainous role of Ptolomee, King of Egypt has the requisite dark vocal coloring, but lacks the flexibility to execute Handel's coloraturas and lengthy melismas. I had to remove a star from my rating after listening to his struggles with 'Virtue, thou ideal name' and 'O sword, and thou, all daring hand.'
The choral work is beautifully colored and the orchestration is fluid and splendidly martial, where called for. In keeping with the warlike flavor of this oratorio, there are many fine trumpet flourishes, including one that Robert King states was composed by Valentine Snow, Handel's principal trumpet for many of his oratorios.
This Hyperion 2-CD set runs for 155 minutes 52 seconds.
All of which is not to say that this work should rank especially high on your Handel shopping list. Between the operas, oratorios, masques and dramatic cantatas, he composed some sixty major dramatic works, and somewhere between twenty and forty of them are more worthy of your attention than "Alexander Balus." But a complete collection of the English language portion of this legacy, not quite a third of the total, is an easier goal than tracking down all the operas. If that’s your plan, "Alexander Balus" becomes a serious option after you’ve acquired "Acis and Galatea," "Athalia", "Saul", "Samson", "Semele", "Hercules", "Belshazzar", "Jephtha", "Theodora", "Solomon", "Susannah", and whichever of the triumphant “J” oratorios--"Joshua" or "Judas Maccabaeus"—you choose as your first delivery system for “Hail the conquering hero comes.”
When it comes to choosing between the competing versions of the oratorio, reviews here suggest that a great many people are happy with this version conducted by Robert King leading his King’s Consort. I came to this recording after making first acquaintance with the work through its competitor, conducted by Rudolf Palmer, and featuring his usual stock company of fine American singers. As the first act of King’s version unfolded I was blown away by the strength of his recording. Much of the impact came from superior engineering; the sound on the Hyperion recording is clearer and more vivid than in Palmer’s version. King’s orchestra and chorus take full advantage of this strength. Their execution is cleaner, their unisons more precise than the competition, and the result is engaging. And during the succession of somewhat dull arias that mark the early stages of "Alexander Balus" I came to appreciate the extra commitment his vocal soloists brought to their solos. His team, including soprano Lynne Dawson as Cleopatra, contralto Catherine Denison as her fiancée Alexander, and tenor Charles Daniels and his brother, sang their numbers with full involvement and astonishing beauty. For a long while I was convinced that this would turn out to be the clear choice for Handel fans. But for those of us who appreciate Handel as a composer who not only writes ravishing melodies and stirring choruses, but also uses those brilliant outbursts to create gripping musical drama, King’s recording falls very short indeed.
The first warning came when I realized that I had gotten halfway through the “Calumny” chorus without realizing what it was. Missing was the tone of abashed reflection over a shocking human failing I had hear in Palmer’s treatment; King’s choristers might just as well have been singing about a lovely sunset. And so it went as the recording proceeded. As Handel’s intended drama began to simmer, King’s company kept the heat low and steady, as though determined to make sure that nothing as messy as real tragedy had a chance to boil over.
This measured approach was fatal to the final act. Instead of being drawn into Cleopatra’s suffering, I started thinking about how it just might be possible for a singer to have enunciation that is too perfect. Instead of focusing on the bereaved woman’s sadness, I found myself remembering the pretentious voice coach in Singin’ in the Rain. Cleopatra’s culminating air, “Convey me to some peaceful shore” as sung by Dawson, reminded me not of a shattered wife and daughter longing for some place she can nurse her sorrows, but of a well-born school girl who has been expelled, but takes comfort that she is, after all, returning to her gracious country home.
Palmer’s recording, though not quite so lovely and charming during the work’s slow beginning, wrings out every drop of the drama that finally emerges. “O calumny” makes its full impact, and Cleopatra’s third act catastrophe is brilliantly enacted. Julianne Baird’s voice is every bit as beautiful as Dawson’s and far more moving, because she also conveys her character’s heartbreak. For fans who agree with Winton Dean that Handel belongs with such great dramatic composers as Mozart, Verdi and Monteverdi there is no question that Palmer’s recording is the choice.
The availability of a budget release of the King recording by the Musical Heritage Society means that fans whose finances don’t always match their longing for more Handel might well end up with his lovely-but-inert version. It’s likely that some fans have come to Handel via the old English oratorio tradition that treated Messiah as a pious embodiment of all the proper English values. If your idea of a Handel oratorio is a bible story that is supposed somehow to be edifying, set to some lovely, respectful music, you won’t have any problem with what the King’s Consort have done with this neglected work. But if you want to appreciate fully the flashes of genius the composer could bring to the stage, you’ll save up your pennies until you can own the Palmer recording of "Alexander Balus."