March 4, 2011 11:21 pm

Handel: Athalia, Handel: Jephtha

Handel

 

Athalia

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Andrew Clark

Paul Goodwin

(Sony, 2 CDs)

4 star rating

Handel

Jephtha

Fabio Biondi

(BIS, 2 CDs)

3 star rating

Three centuries after Handel first visited London, music lovers may be forgiven for thinking his English-language sacred dramas, like the mature Bruckner symphonies, are mere variations on a theme – always the same shape and substance, just dressed in different clothes. That is only partly true, as these two releases demonstrate. When Handel was on song – as he undoubtedly was in the closing chorus of Jephtha Act Two and the Senesino-inspired Italian arias he added to Athalia – his music became emotionally and psychologically charged, in a way that tied it individually, unmistakably, to the dramatic situation: not for nothing had he spent 20 years building a name as the supreme opera composer of his time.

Athalia (1733), the first major English oratorio, and Jephtha (1752), Handel’s last, are both Old Testament stories. Athalia, the lesser known of the two, comes across unexpectedly well in Goodwin’s recording with the Kammerorchester Basel, thanks partly to superior soloists, but also because the story lends itself to greater musical variety: just listen to the Part One finale, surely a dry run for the “Hallelujah” chorus in Messiah.

Geraldine McGreevy and Lawrence Zazzo make a wonderfully vibrant case for Handel’s decorative vocalism, but it’s Goodwin who defines the performance: unlike so many baroque specialists, he does not short-change Handel’s majesty. Biondi’s Jephtha, recorded live with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra and Collegium Vocale Gent, has solid stylistic foundations but is compromised by an uneven line-up of soloists.

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