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.
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