One question I might find among the more difficult in my life would be - which is my favourite Handel oratorio? I suspect that my answer would generally be 'the one I heard most recently', and that, as I write this, is Belshazzar. It is a magnificent thing, a heavenly thing. It has taken me longer than it should have to come to an appreciation of what makes Handel the phenomenon - as a genius, as an artist, as a craftsman - that he is, but I am comforted to reflect that no less a genius than Haydn, at the age of nearly 70 gaining a more thorough knowledge of Handel in performance, was driven to say that he felt a mere apprentice. In his sense of how to pace a dramatic narrative, in his instinct for how to use the human voice in song and above all in chorus, in the matchless flexibility and adroitness he displays at word-setting and in the audacity of his melodic and harmonic effects I can think of nobody who can approach Handel on his own terms.
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.