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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Joshua, oratorio in 3 parts (HWV 64)

Myung-Hee Hyun (Achsah), soprano; Alex Potter (Othniel), alto; James Gilchrist (Joshua), Georg Poplutz (Angel), tenor; Konstantin Wolff (Caleb), bass
Kölner Kammerchor; Collegium Cartusianum
Dir: Peter Neumann

rec: Nov 17 - 19, 2007, Cologne, Trinitatiskirche
MDG - 332 1532-2 (2 CDs) (© 2008) (2.02'40")

Oratorios by Handel are regularly performed and popular among choirs, because Handel gives them a lot to do. But some are more popular than Messiah, Israel in Egypt, Esther and Saul are among the most frequently performed, but Joshua belongs to the less popular oratorios. But it contains a chorus almost everyone knows in one form or another: "See, the conqu'ring hero comes". The music was set to a religious text in Germany, and in translation this has found its way to other countries as well. Lovers of classical music will know the melody also from Beethoven's variations for pianoforte and cello.

There was a time Joshua was performed from time to time: Robert King, in the programme notes to his recording of 1991 (Hyperion), lists a number of performances in England in the second half of the 18th century and some in Germany in the 19th. It seems it was not until the 20th century that its popularity was waning. In the programme notes to Peter Neumann's recording Markus Schwering states that one of the reasons may be that there are no real human conflicts and that the characters are psychologically rather uninteresting. But Robert King disagrees with the latter statement as he calls the characters "strong". His characterisation of the oratorio as "perhaps more a series of incidents than a developed plot" could be one of the reasons for its lack of popularity.

Joshua is written on a "warlike heroic libretto", as Markus Schwering calls it. It was not the first time Handel wrote an oratorio of this kind. It was preceded by Judas Maccabaeus, and Handel started to compose Joshua immediately after writing another oratorio of a "warlike heroic" character, Alexander Balus. This kind of oratorios, about the Jewish people defeating their enemies, went down well with the English audiences as they identified themselves with the people of Israel. And this could be another reason why Joshua seems to have fallen out of grace in our time. Some people could consider it "militaristic" and therefore not particularly like it. Searching on the internet I found this characterisation which seems to support this assumption: "Joshua and its companions from that period carry a proud standard. In honoring Jewish courage, perseverance and survival they also parade a British swagger, and do what they set out to do in a manner that is somehow naively appealing if a little shocking, and, to the extent in which they exult military slaughter, repugnant to modern sensibilities" (Donald Teeters, The Boston Cecilia).

Judas Maccabaeus was a great success, and this encouraged Handel to compose Joshua. He set the score to music in just one month in the summer of 1747. In line with the character of the oratorio Handel used a rather large orchestra, including pairs of transverse flutes, oboes, horns and trumpets, plus bassoon and timpani. The brass instruments were particularly useful to depict the fall of the walls of Jericho. On 9 March 1748 the first performance took place at Covent Garden which seems to have been a great success, as it was followed by three further performances. And apparently it remained popular, since Handel directed further performances at several places in 1752, 1754, and 1756.

As far as I know this is only the fourth recording on period instruments. Apart from the recording by Robert King I found a recording directed by Rudolph Palmer (Newport Classic, 1993) and a German production, directed by Jürgen Budday (K&K Verlagsanstalt, 2007). I haven't heard either of them, but at least the latter seems unlikely to be a serious contender, as Budday's Handel recordings I have heard are all rather unsatisfactory. Therefore a new recording is most welcome, in particular as Peter Neumann has recorded several oratorios by Handel before, and mostly to good effect. But his interpretation of Joshua is largely disappointing.

There is only one soloist who really lives up to the expectations: Konstantin Wolff, who gives a fine account of the role of Caleb. He is particularly impressive in his performance of the recitatives. And that is one of the weaknesses of this recording: the performances of the recitatives are rhythmically too strict, and as a result not very dramatic. Wolff also gives a good expression of the content of his arias, and that is where several of the other singers are falling short. Myung-Hee Hyun has a beautiful and sweet voice, but her text expression is very limited and her singing is rather bland. In comparision Emma Kirkby in Robert King's recording gives a much more differentiated interpretation of the role of Achsah. Alex Potter has also a nice voice and uses it well, but he is much more convincing as the lover of Achsah than as the warrior he is supposed to be in the third act. James Bowman (King) does better in this respect, also because he has a more powerful voice. James Gilchrist is disappointing in the first act, but does better in the remaining part of the oratorio. The aria 'With redoubled rage return' in the second act, for instance, is done really well. But I find his continuous vibrato hard to swallow, and although John Mark Ainsley (in Robert King's recording) is not without it either his performance is more pleasing to my ears.

The most dramatic scene is at the start of the second act when the walls of Jericho are coming down. Peter Neumann realises this rather well, but Robert King surpasses him, as he creates larger dynamic contrast and greater tension. In general the choruses are the most satisfactory part of this performance. The choirs of Neumann and King are about the same in size, and they are also of about the same quality. But Robert King takes overall a more dramatic approach, and as a result his performance is more captivating and does explore the qualities of Joshua better. If you are looking for a recording of this oratorio, Robert King remains first choice.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Kölner Kammerchor & Collegium Cartusianum

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