Handel hits this one with everything, or nearly everything. I'm not sure that I have ever been more conscious of the sheer audacity of his style than I am here in Joshua. There are some big effects, of a familiar type, as in the chorus `Glory to God' that accompanies the fall of the walls of Jericho or in the `Solemn March during the circumvection of the Ark of the Covenant' that precedes it, or in the terrific final chorus. There is some extraordinary orchestration, notably the birdsong impressions in Achsah's aria `Hark, `tis the linnet' or the extraordinary impact of the long sustained notes on violins and trumpet when the sun is bidden to stand still in ` Behold! The list'ning sun'. There is the populist Handel of `See the conquering hero comes', which seems to have done much for him what `La donna e mobile' was later to do for Verdi. At the musical, or musical/rhetorical, level there is an abundance of the subtler stylistic features that set him apart from anyone else of his time - the characteristic stops and starts, changes of pace, rhetorical gaps in the vocal line, modulations that almost anticipate Schubert and that unparalleled instinct he had for how, why and when words should be repeated for maximum effect, continuity and eloquence. There is a certain amount of unaccompanied singing both for soloists and chorus, and if I have one problem with any of it, the problem is with Handel's sense for choral tone, which leaves me unable to listen to anyone else's choral writing for some time afterwards.
The libretto deserves a certain amount of the credit. The Rev Thomas Morell was no great poet, and his verbal expression is more trite than usual here, no doubt because of the pressure he was under to keep pace with the enormous speed Handel was working at in the grip of inspiration. Summarised on paper, the plot of Joshua does not look particularly promising. In musical terms after all one military victory is much like another. It comes across rather like a soccer commentary - the walls of Jericho are brought down, so one-nil to the children of Israel: these become complacent and are repulsed at Ai, so the score is now level: they are rallied by their management and notch up the match-winner at Debir, leading to a hero's welcome not for Joshua but actually for Othniel, in case anyone was noticing by now. However what Morell did possess was a sound instinct for a musical drama. The roller-coaster fortunes of the Israelites were a welcome opportunity to Handel, and the romantic thread of Achsah and Othniel was another. Morell even provides `Hark `tis the linnet' on a blatant pretext, as Robert King says, but Handel was not the man to turn down the chance, and we are all the gainers. It is a story full of contrast and of light and shade, and by either good luck or inspired editing the un-triumphant aria `To Vanity', in which Achsah warns the victorious Israelites against over-confidence, comes just before the change to the second disc.
Even by the very high standards one has come to expect from today's early-music groups, this issue strikes me as absolutely outstanding. It has a solo cast of the tried and the tested, (other than the treble Aidan Oliver in the small part of the Angel), there is an instrumental ensemble of nearly 40, and a chorus of 30 with boy trebles and male altos. Right from the magnificent first chorus one has a sense of absolute confidence and command, and so it stays all the way through to the end. The soloists are consistently fine, and if I single out John Mark Ainsley as Joshua and Emma Kirkby as Achsah for special mention that may be largely because they have the biggest roles, and of course the solitary female role. Kirkby in particular is in sublime voice, but my head is still ringing with the sound of each of them negotiating Handel's coloratura sequences with consummate ease and professionalism. Absolutely everything seems to be right here, and from everyone. The range of expression they have to encompass is particularly wide in Joshua, but they seem to have been born to sing it, and the instrumental work, directed by Robert King, is beyond praise too for tact and sense of style, as well, needless to say, as technical accomplishment. There are three trumpet-players, so I am unable to name the special hero of `Behold! The list'ning sun'.
Robert King himself contributes the commentary, which I read before listening to the music. It is very detailed and enthusiastic and at first I even thought it just a trifle breathless and excitable. As my own level of excitement rose during the performance, I was getting on to the same wavelength myself, and as one superb solo or chorus followed on another I found myself checking back with King to see what he had to say about the piece in question. I suppose I must have read a fair amount about all of the main performers at one time or another, but I would still have welcomed at least a brief note on each of them. What we are offered instead is their photographs, and I must admit that they are a very good-looking and photogenic bunch. The recorded sound is absolutely admirable too.