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Lama ragashu goyim?

01/28/2004 -  
George Frideric Handel: Occasional Oratorio

Lisa Milne (soprano), Thomas Mead (countertenor), Charles Daniels (tenor), Andrew Foster-Williams (tenor)

Choir of the King's Consort, The King's Consort

Robert King (conductor)

Handel's Occasional Oratorio was written in 1746, the South Bank brochure diplomatically says, to celebrate the defeat of a threatened invasion by the Scots. The battle of Culloden is now generally regarded as a vindictive massacre of the Jacobites, and the Occasional Oratorio as a bit of an embarrassment, an overweening triumph over a demonised enemy within. A cento of mainly scriptural passages, it begins with the nations raging, and some Spenserian mourning for Albion in danger, reiterates at length both the perils caused by our foes and God's unfailing support for us, recycles the praise of the Lord for routing our enemies from Israel in Egypt and ends with a cut down version of Zadok the priest. The whole thing could be described as a secular Messiah, with the king and military success replacing the Messiah and the second coming, with Culloden as a figure of the last battle. As a small token of this, the phrase "the Lord and his Messiah dear" in Milton's version of Psalm 2 becomes in the opening aria "the Lord and his Annointed", which could refer either to the Messiah or to the king. The language and musical style of the biblical oratorios fit easily into this framework, and indeed an aria from Judas Maccabeus(Handel's next production) is slotted in complete.

Charles Jennens didn't like it at all, perhaps because Handel set Milton's version of several texts which Jennens had already included in Messiah. Handel's heart might not have been in it either, to judge from the extent of wholesale recycling of both text and music, and, perhaps more to the point, their apparently shapeless integration. Yet it is hard to tell for sure: the logic and rhetoric of Messiah may be apparent only because the work is so familiar; both oratorios might be well targeted at their intended audiences. The mindset of the audience for the Occasional Oratorio is just harder to reproduce today, although there might be uncomfortable parallels in the present American government, resolutely Protestant Christian and determined to give the bad guys a good smiting.

Robert King and his band steered clear of any potential political associations and concentrated on a well-honed performance of (at least an edition of) the words and music as written. Charles Daniels was able to add considerable expressive value to the lyrical but often rather undistinguished seeming tenor arias written for John Beard. Andrew Foster-Williams was suitably robust in the two grand pivotal bass arias, one about the sceptre and one about the sword. And Lisa Milne was glorious in the soprano music, though as a Scot she might have objected to the whole enterprise. Thomas Mead, stepping up from the choir for an indisposed Robin Blaze in his first solo engagement, was well-rehearsed, clear and sweet, and impressively well balanced with Milne in their duet. The choir remained incisive through apparently endless repetitions of key texts and nearly blew the back out of the hall in the final "God save the king"s.

It is difficult to say how much mileage there is in the Occasional Oratorio. It seems to be one for completionists. There is no narrative frame to add a human dimension, and the dramatic biblical oratorios often include a reproach to ambition and a tragic awareness of the cost to the victor of waging war, which is missing here. Even Israel in Egypt has a brief narrative progression and frogs. But this performance showed that some of the individual arias and choruses that are not to be found in other places are indeed winners, as are the two symphonies. Fortunately, the King's Consort is there to perform rarities such as this and get the maximum value from them.

HE Elsom



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