[Julia Doyle, Ben Johnson, Peter Harvey STB], Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Howard Arman
138:27 (2 CDs in box with sleeve)
BR Klassik 900520
Written in anticipation of the Hanoverian victory over the Jacobites at Culloden in 1746, Handel’s Occasional Oratorio had to be written in considerable haste, and, as a result, the ageing pragmatist naturally resorted to recycling on an industrial scale. It is entertaining to listen to this piece and to try to place where the reused material came from originally. The composer’s own opus 6 Concerti Grossi are not for the first time a rich source of raw material, but most powerful is Handel’s reuse of the “Zadok the Priest” music conceived for George II’s coronation some twenty years earlier to conclude the oratorio with the words “God save the King long live the King!” The German-born composer knew what side his bread was buttered on, and, in addition, addition to have felt a considerable personal loyalty to the House of Hanover. As the programme note points out, another snag with a celebratory oratorio written prior to the victory it celebrates is the risk of tempting fate, so Handel and his librettist, Newburgh Hamilton, endeavour to couch any direct hero-worship in general terms, while trusting in the good offices of Jehovah. Truly remarkable, but perhaps unsurprising in a composer with Handel’s lifetime of experience, is the way in which every corner of the oratorio is beautifully crafted. This recording benefits from lovely instrumental playing both from orchestral soloists, strings and woodwind, and from the full orchestral body. While Ben Johnson occasionally sounds a little uncomfortable in the generally low tessitura of the tenor part, bass Peter Harvey and soprano Julia Doyle make a tuneful and idiomatic contribution. Sometimes I felt that the Bavarian choral forces were a little on the large scale for some of the detailed music they were given, but they sing with an admirable precision and clarity. This is a live recording made in the rich acoustic of the Munich Residenz Herkulessaal, and apart from one noticeable cough near the beginning it is remarkably distraction-free. Generally speaking this is a committed and effective account of the Occasional Oratorio in the new 2009 Halle Händel Edition.
D. James Ross