If it has long languished among Handel's least-well-known pieces, the reasons lie beyond the all-too-appropriate title of The Occasional Oratorio. Ageing, ill and seriously out of pocket, the composer was obliged to pull it together at a speed desperate even beyond his usual practice. Accordingly, he resorted more than ever to ransacking his other oratorios and concertos and simply adapting bits to the new words - even the final grand chorus is just a truncated rerun of "Zadok the Priest". Moreover, the evening-length sequence follows no strong dramatic narrative. But it was prompted by a specific occasion.
It was 1745; the Jacobite rebellion was in full swing, and London was in turmoil. A grand patriotic rallying-cry was required to "Bless the true church, and save the king!", as one of the choruses has it. A patchwork text of biblical injunctions, snippets of Spenser and Milton and Augustan fustian was thrown together by author(s) unknown. Doubtless uttering many a groan, the 61-year-old composer duly delivered. And, against all the odds, what he delivered proved to be studded with gems - as revealed in the work's latest resuscitation at the Queen Elizabeth Hall by the forces of The King's Consort under the vivacious direction of Robert King.
The piece falls into three "acts", though there is no action but, rather, a series of sacred reflections and militant declarations. The music for much of the latter is in the rub-a-dub mode of the rather splendid opening Overture, with its three bright trumpets and drums. The lyrical numbers are generally more memorable. Never more so than in the melting soprano aria with chorus "Be wise, be wise at length, ye kings averse", delivered with just the right degree of archness by the radiant Lisa Milne, with the crisp Choir of the King's Consort dashing away in its concluding fugal knees-up.
Yet no less a find was the bass aria with chorus "To God, our strength, sing loud and clear" - in fact a richly harmonised arioso, with the sonorous bass of Andrew Foster-Williams offset by the serene intertwinings of Crispian Steele-Perkins's trumpet and Alexandra Bellamy's oboe. Meanwhile, the ever-reliable Charles Daniel husbanded his clear lyric line through a whole gamut of arias, while, from the Consort, the eloquent continuo cello of Jonathan Cohen and the florid harpsichord of Gary Cooper were outstanding.
The advertised alto lead, Robin Blaze, being indisposed, King had invited the young countertenor Timothy Mead to step from the choir in what was, in fact, his debut as a soloist. He graced us with a sumptuously even tone, admirable diction and a presence growing in confidence and ease before our very ears and eyes as the evening progressed. He should go far.Reuse content