Oh dear. For years now I've become accustomed to recordings of the Handel oratorios and similar works that are at a high and steady level of excellence. I learn from the liner-note that both orchestra and conductor have these works at the heart of their repertoire, and there is not a single musical project anywhere that I would support with greater enthusiasm. On top of that I have been happy on several occasions to express appreciation of Naxos for their enterprise in bringing unfamiliar music to us the musical public at moderate cost. All this makes it uncongenial to me to have to say that this particular production is somewhere below par.
I don't know whether the composer himself described this work as an oratorio. It's not my own idea of an oratorio, more an extended cantata or musical entertainment. There is no dramatic narrative or action whatsoever, and the role of the chorus is subsidiary to that of the soloists who dominate the proceedings. The text by Jennens takes Milton's pair of odes and alternates the extracts in each of the first two sections. Despite this admirable balance a need was still seen for some third way. It's not as if Milton's odes represented any extremes of mood or sentiment, but Jennens added a shorter third element `Il Moderato' anyway, and so far as I'm concerned more music by Handel is my own priority. The music is simply heavenly. The last duet `As steals the morn' would grace the St Matthew Passion itself, the quite extraordinary aria `Sweet bird' is nearly 11 minutes long, sc as long as many a first movement in Mozart's piano concertos, and the music throughout brings us Handel at his most imaginative, inspired and audacious. One matter that intrigues me is that Handel refused point-blank to write an overture, prefacing each of the three sections with movements from his concertos. His concertos were composed as entr'actes in his oratorios, they do not appear in the scores of those but full-scale overtures do. This says loudly and clearly to me that Handel did not view this composition as an oratorio in any ordinary sense.
The problems this set gives me are partly to do with the performance, partly with the recording. Basically, it all has the right idea. The style, as well as the instruments used, is authentic. Moreover some things are really very good, like the duet I referred to or like solos from organ and trumpet. The gamba has a solo too, and this brings the issue into focus - as recorded, it's rather hard to tell whether the player was actually playing very well and idiomatically or whether he was struggling a bit. What I'm sure is really the fault of the recording is the way the chorus come across - as if they were singing inside a submarine. At other points soloists and recording share the Beckmesser-points. I was starting to enjoy the soprano arioso `Join with thee' when she let out an excruciating high note. I'm quite convinced the recording was not her friend here, but she produces too many of a similar kind for me to blame it on that entirely. To cap it all the tenor gives us a similar exploit of his own in his air `Each action'. Bluntly, the soloists lack quality or distinction. Stephan MacLeod the bass is probably the best, in part because he has no high notes to tempt the recording engineers. The direction seems to me very variable, sometimes rising not badly at all to the music but too often flat-footed and uninspired. Nor is the actual playing here and there everything one would wish for.
Taking into account the bargain cost and the fact that I have so far no other version of this celestial composition, I can just about lean over backwards far enough to give the set a third star. However such music simply calls for better than this. I shall be looking to acquire another version before too long, and I urge readers of this notice to seek the society of Dr Morrison who provides guidance on better alternatives in a review adjacent to this one.
There is a really charming liner-note by the conductor himself. I thought it was going to be all about Handel's early oratorio Esther, but it gradually extended its scope to his career in general before finally getting round to a short commentary on the work it accompanies. It is informative and well-written, and translated by Keith Anderson with notable skill. Many is the time I've protested about inadequate liner-notes to first-class performances. Having now encountered the situation in reverse I suspect I may be rather less critical when I come across that again.