1745 was a bad year in London. Bonnie Prince Charlie and his band of lawless resolutes had come as near to London as Derby. There they had been defeated in battle, but it was still uncomfortably close for the Hanoverian court and its adherents, not least Mr Handel himself, now aged 60 and in receipt of a pension from the court, a pension he badly needed after a disastrous season for his oratorio productions. The monarchy of George II was perhaps not obviously inspiring, but the general feeling seems to have been that those who were not against it might as well be with it. Dormant patriotism now stirred in some unlikely bosoms, including that of Gluck at the Haymarket Theatre who turned out his pretentious La Caduta de' Giganti, which seems to have aroused as little enthusiasm even then as it does now. Handel, already at work with Morell as librettist on Judas Maccabaeus, diverted his efforts on to something more obviously related to the mood of the time, and by early 1746 was already rehearsing The Occasional Oratorio.
There is no story to the Occasional Oratorio, and the singers are not cast as characters. It is really an extended cantata, nearly two and a half hours of it. It is all in honour of the expected or hoped-for victory of the Hanoverian army under the command of the King's youngest son William Augustus Duke of Cumberland, `Butcher Cumberland' himself, now well on his way to his final routing of Prince Charles Edward and the Jacobites at Culloden near Inverness. To this day the name `Jacobite' is a badge of nostalgic pride in the region, but the names of the towns Fort William, Fort Augustus and Fort George reflect more accurately the way things turned out. The libretto was excoriated by the splenetic Charles Jennens, Handel's collaborator on Messiah, Saul and some other oratorios, and may or may not have been the work of one Hamilton Newburgh, but for my own part I can't find much wrong with it. Handel is well equal to any challenge there may have been in providing variety and contrast, and I find the music absolutely splendid throughout, and sometimes absolutely sublime. The level of borrowing, recycling and adaptation is higher than usual, but I can't see why that should be a special issue in Handel considering that such a hallmarked official masterpiece as Bach's B minor Mass is made up of reused material from beginning to end. That was just the way things were done at that time, and rightly so in my own view. Robert King gives details of the transfers from elsewhere, all of which are familiar to me except those from Comus, and he rightly highlights the extensive quarrying Handel did in Israel in Egypt for his third act here. For all the great music it contains, I would call Israel in Egypt a thoroughly unsatisfactory composition, and it is an especial pleasure to welcome back a handful of superlative numbers in the more coherent and intelligible context of The Occasional Oratorio.
This is of course a performance in the `authentic' manner. The authentic practitioners have relaxed a good deal since their self-conscious and rather self-assertive early days. King is not afraid to take a slowish tempo where proper expression seems to require it, and the forces deployed are comparatively large, as indeed they had better be for at least two of the numbers borrowed from Israel in Egypt, namely the hailstone chorus and the chorus that now follows the opening `symphony' (2 movements from the op6 concertos) in the third act. There were apparently only three soloists in the first performances, but King very sensibly has five. The extensive soprano work is divided between Susan Gritton and Lisa Milne, and a few lower-lying items are given to the counter-tenor James Bowman, so we are in safe hands there. All of these are excellent, but my own special prizes go to the tenor John Mark Ainsley and above all to the bass Michael George whose magnificent timbre does justice and more to what is perhaps the ultimate gem of the work the aria with chorus To God Our Strength in Act II. You would be astonished if I had anything but the highest praise to offer the King's Consort, its choir and choristers, and the choir of New College Oxford, and I have no surprises for you in that respect either.
As usual, Robert King provides his own liner-note, a helpful and readable sketch of the historical background plus an endearingly enthusiastic commentary on the music in a slightly `ooh-ah' vein. I must say my eyebrows shot up several inches when he describes Zadok the Priest, the music of which Handel, with breathtaking chutzpah, adapts for his final chorus, as `Handel's most famous chorus of all' - what on earth has happened to the Hallelujah? - but this is neither here nor there, particularly when the chorus is as well done as it is. The recording, from 2004, is absolutely first-rate too, and the whole experience is one for repeated, and not occasional, listening. Any performance of The Occasional Oratorio is an occasion indeed, and it has been a privilege to have lived into the era of Handel's revival that makes such occasions possible.