Gabrieli Consort & Players / McCreesh, Christ Church, Spitalfields, London

Composed in 1744, three years after Messiah - and to a trenchant text by the same librettist, Charles Jennens - Handel's dramatic oratorio Belshazzar stands among the most tightly structured and vividly inventive in his output. No doubt it would be among the most frequently performed, too, were it not for the ubiquity of Messiah itself. Still, its less familiar pleasures came up the more freshly in this latest revival by the Gabrieli Consort and Players, under their director Paul McCreesh, in the renewed splendours of Christ Church, Spitalfields.

This is the story not only of Belshazzar's feast itself, but of the downfall of Babylon at the hands of Cyrus, Prince of Persia, and his restoration of God's kingdom. After a brief overture, typical of so much of the music in its crisp cross-cutting of textures and dynamics, the work's larger scope is immediately outlined in a long meditation on the rise and fall of empires by Cyrus's mother Nitocris, on this occasion, Rosemary Joshua in initially fluttery, though later affecting voice.

Scene two already screws up the tension, however, with the besieging Cyrus recounting his divinely inspired dream to enter the city by draining the Euphrates. Here, that magnificent mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley, relishing every phrase, had us mesmerised - ably abetted by Christopher Purves as Cyrus's ally Gobrias evoking Belshazzar as "the monstrous human beast, wallowing in excessive feast!". Needless to say, Handel makes a gleeful meal of the word "wallowing".

Enter the prophet Daniel, in the refined counter-tenor tones of Daniel Taylor, to foretell the coming deliverance of the captive Jews, and only then does Belshazzar - in this performance, the manically exuberant Paul Agnew - appear to proclaim his feast. A culminating chorus of Jews, however, puts its trust in God's retribution to an ominously chromatic fugue.

After a first act comprising a gigantic build-up of expectation, the dramatic events of Acts II and III are dispatched rapidly - with the Writing on the Wall at the feast itself evoked in a kind of Handelian Morse code, and a striking duet of reconciliation for Nitocris and Cyrus after Belshazzar's death. But then, this is a score strewn with striking things. Though relatively restrained in orchestration, the string writing is surely among the most variously textured Handel ever achieved, and the resonance, lilt and shine McCreesh's players brought to it was a delight.

Maybe he could have afforded ampler tempos in Christ Church's blurring acoustics for some of the more driven of Handel's magnificent choruses, in which he clearly distinguishes between the martial Persians, the hymn-like Jews and the roistering Babylonians. But all in all, a tremendous launch to Spitalfields' brief Winter Festival.

Festival ends tonight (020-7377 1362)

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'