Handel’s Alexander Balus – 30 April

Alexander Balus

Alexander – Alexandra Gibson (mezzo-soprano)
Cleopatra – Natalie Clifton-Griffith (soprano)
Aspasia – Anna Dennis (soprano)
Jonathan – Andrew Kennedy (tenor)
Ptolomee – Christopher Dixon (bass)
A sycophant courtier – Richard Savage (bass)
A messenger – Angus Smith (tenor)
Second messenger – Charles Gibbs (bass)

Handel Festival Chorus & Orchestra
Laurence Cummings

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 30 April, 2003
Venue: St George’s, Hanover Square, London

Why Alexander Balus is so neglected defeats me. The story, taken from the first Book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha, is set against some lovely music, occasionally “lifted” by Handel from other works of his, such as La Resurrezione. The grand opening chorus arouses one’s immediate attention, especially as it was performed here in Handel’s church close by Hanover Square, with the choristers divided as they processed from the rear of the church to their places in front of the holy table.

The evening began with something of a paradox, for we were told that the concert had been sold out, with people unable to obtain tickets. After I had counted 50 empty seats upstairs I was puzzled. That puzzlement was soon replaced by a quandary.

I had been allocated a poor seat in the balcony, BEHIND the soloists, so what I write must be read against the fact that throughout the evening I could hear very few of their words, with the exception of the tenor’s. I do not blame the young singers for this, for I am sure that had I been sitting in front of them I should have found them more intelligible.

The chorus was fine: a chamber chorus rather than a grand choir. Every contribution was a delight. The orchestra likewise, one or two little snags aside. How sublime was the playing of the various plucked instruments in Cleopatra’s “Hark! Hark! He strikes the golden lyre”, gloriously scored for two flutes, bassoon, strings both pizzicato and arco, harp, mandolin and organ: its introduction, before the voice enters, is one of those Handel melodies which prick one’s tear ducts by their sheer beauty. (Just prior to writing this review I played two recordings of that aria as a purely hedonistic start to the day.) There was, of course, more than that one aria, and the orchestra, with Laurence Cummings eliciting deliciously light playing, was responsible for much of one’s enjoyment. The friend who was with me thought that Cummings’s conducting was more lively and varied than that of Robert King’s on Hyperion’s recording (see below).

Of the five main soloists, the three ladies were new to me. Alexandra Gibson brought a soft-grained mezzo-soprano to Alexander’s role, sometimes covered by the instruments in its lowest range, though again my position and the acoustics may have made me hear it thus. The divisions were sung fluently enough, as they were by the light-toned Natalie Clifton-Griffith as Cleopatra, who melded well with Gibson in the Act 2 duet “Hail, wedded love” and brought a sweetness of tone to the “Lyre” aria aforementioned, thus augmenting its charm, as she did to her final aria, “Convey me to some peaceful shore”. More vocal ’beef’ was to be heard from Anna Dennis as Aspasia, Cleopatra’s confidante. Hers was a voice which, on this one acquaintance, I should think would be more suited to the opera-stage than that of the other ladies, yet she too dealt comfortably with scale-passages.

Tenor Andrew Kennedy, who had impressed me in Arne’s Artaxerxes some months back, brought a clear tone and cleanly articulated runs as Jonathan, his voice firm. As the devious Ptolomee, King of Egypt, Christopher Dixon seemed to be coping well, but from my disadvantageous seat I heard a lack of focus in the tone, so I shall reserve judgement in fairness to the young man.

Although I obviously missed something, my evening was a pleasant one. What a worthwhile event this annual festival is.

Any Handelians who have never heard Alexander Balus would do well to obtain the Hyperion recording under Robert King (CDA67241/2), with Lynne Dawson, Catherine Denley and Charles Daniels among the soloists. Another recording, on Newport Classics (NPD 85625/2), is also well performed but less clearly recorded.

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