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Belshazzar Box set
|Price:||CDN$ 26.02 & FREE Shipping. Details|
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Belshazzar was not a great success at the box-office, although this may have had more to do with difficulties in the casting than because it was deemed insufficiently biblical for oratorio, which seems to have been the fate of Hercules. It seems to me to be perfectly well described as oratorio in other ways too, with (for one thing) the extensive use of the chorus that we find in, say, Samson but not in Hercules. The one passage that cries out for visual effects is of course the apparition of the moving finger itself. Even here the composer can go a long way with sheer power of suggestion, by the strange unaccompanied violin figure creeping upwards and the frightened brevity of the vocal numbers. Otherwise for me Belshazzar is as much an oratorio as Samson is. It has the same librettist too, the crusty and formidable Jennens, who had also collaborated with Handel on Saul and on Messiah itself. Jennens' full text is not provided, but I think if you read the synopsis first and then follow the work from the headlines to each number you will have no difficulty in catching the words, so clear is the enunciation by soloists and chorus alike. As usual, Handel was driven to make alterations to the score for practical reasons. He had been a little concerned about its length, roughly 2 hours and 50 minutes in this performance, but where he wishes to be expansive he gives us full measure - two arias in Act I scene 4 take well over 7 minutes each. The liner-essay (a good one, by Anthony Hicks) goes into the issue of the version of the score used here, and I personally have no problem with it.
I have no faults to find with the performance in any way. Pinnock is an established specialist, the instruments are period instruments and vocal cadenzas at the end of the arias are kept minimal. Anthony Rolfe Johnson, James Bowman and David Wilson-Johnson are tried and trusted Handel singers and at their best here, and Nicolas Robertson and Richard Wistreich in the smaller parts are every bit as good. The part of Cyrus is a soprano part, taken by Catherine Robbin, and when I thought I heard just one touch of strain in `Destructive War' in the final scene she makes up for it instantly in her superb duet with Arleen Auger in the following number. Auger as Nitocris the mother of Belshazzar has the biggest part, and she covers herself with glory all the way through.
The recording is perfect, and when I saw an aria entitled `Destructive War, thy limits know' near the end I felt a sharp sense of irony in the year 2005. Cyrus, Handel, Jennens, you should all have been living at this hour.
That was quite a good performance, if not outright perfect. The good things outweigh the bad, though one really would have hoped that the two royal characters were more strongly cast.
Here, Pinnock picked a vocally perfect cast.
The late Anthony Rolfe Johnson in the title role is even better than Kenneth Tarver in the Jacob's version. This really makes one wonder whether in truth and in fact, the best Handellians are basically British? Having said that, Arleen Auger's queen Nitocris is simply perfection itself. This American coloratura soprano enjoyed star status during her relatively short but brilliant operatic career, and is a first rate Handellian, Mozartian...As the Persian prince Cyrus, Catherine Robbin may not be able to excel over Bejun Mehta in the Jacob's recording, but hers is still a sterling performance. Gobrias and Arioch sung by Wilson-Johnson and Robertson proved to be further examples of first rate Handel interpretation. James Bowman as Daniel is certainly a luxurious casting.
The choir here is simply terrific - they sung the Babylonians, Jews and Persians with equal verve and passion, and the English Concert simply plays Handel to perfection.
Although performed and recorded in 1990, this recording is likely to remain the benchmark for all subsequent recordings of this work.
So, since any real fan of musical drama needs to know “Belshazzar,” the crucial question for any recording is whether it does justice to the beauty and power of the work. In this case the answer is an unconditional “Yes!” The choir is superb, the conducting insightful, the soloists top-notch. I would rate it just a hair below the splendid recording of the work by Nicolaus Harnoncourt, but the two are so closely matched that the slightest change in one’s personal preferences would tip the scales the other way. In sheer vocalism Pinnock’s choir surpasses its rival—his choristers have a stunningly beautiful sound—but Harnoncourt’s Swedish singers provide more distinct characterization of the three different nations they represent. In fact, the sheer beauty of the soprano sound by Pinnock’s choristers in their Persian personas made me wonder for moment how that campaigning army managed to amass so many lovely-voiced camp followers. But it is obviously not much of a criticism to describe a choir as “too beautiful.”
My reasons for preferring Felicity Palmer as queen Nitocris to the always-wonderful Arlene Auger, and Harnoncourt’s Maureen Lehane as Cyrus over the excellent Catherine Robbin are equally subtle: I think the extra heft of their voices makes the one seem more maternal, the other a more convincing general, than their lighter-voiced counterparts on this recording. The counter-tenors on the two recordings battle it out to a draw; Bowman starts with some of his most ravishing singing on record, while rival Esswood sustains his own lovely tone a little longer. Both are so successful as the prophet Daniel that I couldn’t sustain my usual grumbles about conductors who cast counter-tenors in roles Handel wrote for female singers. The tenors who sing the lead roles are also a toss-up—Tear on the Harnoncourt is a tad more emphatic, Rolfe-Johnson more subtle--and both period orchestras more than measure up to the challenge.
So close are the recordings that a choice between them may well come down to price and coupling. At the moment it seems that you must spend an extra six or seven dollars for the Harnoncourt, but for that money you also get his “Jephtha.” If the latter recording was as outstanding as the “Belshazzar” I’d recommend the double set in an instant, but sadly it isn’t. I still remember my disappointment when I first bought the Harnoncourt “Jephtha” after hearing an incredible local performance of the work. I quickly realized that although the conducting was vivid and the orchestral playing superb, the singers on the recording were far inferior to the ones I had heard live. After I got Gardiner’s “Jephtha” I felt no urge to revisit the early recording. So, is it worth seven bucks to get a “Belshazzar” that’s just a tiny tad better than this one, along with a second-tier “Jephtha” with great orchestral playing and disappointing solo singing? Real fans will probably get both—after all, one’s appreciation of any masterpiece deepens with exposure to alternate interpretations--but for anyone trying to build a basic Handel collection within a reasonable budget Pinnock’s recording is the obvious choice. You’ll be choosing a tad more beauty and a touch less personality, but at this price that’s hardly a huge compromise.
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