Photo - Jonathan Rose

Göttingen Comes to London


Handel – Joshua. St John’s Smith Square, 24 May 2014


Even fervent Handel admirers rarely find many kind words to say about Joshua, the last of four oratorios with militaristic overtones composed and performed between 1746 and 1748 (the others are the Occasional Oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus and Alexander Balus). With the arguable exception of the Occasional Oratorio, all have librettos by Thomas Morrell, who took episodes from Old Testament history as his subject matter. These he adapted to serve a moral purpose that might be viewed as analogous to current political events[1]. The plot of Joshua deals with the Jewish entry into Canaan following the forty years in the wilderness and God’s command to Joshua to destroy Jericho, an objective ultimately achieved triumphantly following initial setback. For the late Handel scholar Winton Dean the work suffers fatally from Morrell’s ‘slack’ plot, on which he concluded, ‘Handel expended little creative effort’[2]. It is an assessment with which it is hard to disagree, despite, as Dean acknowledges, a few remarkable exceptions such as Joshua’s recitative ‘O thou bright orb’ and the chorus that ends part 2 with the Jewish leader’s stilling of the progress of the moon and sun, a stunning coup de theatre. Notwithstanding such a special moment, Morrell’s book lacks overall dramatic purpose, being content to fall back on recording past events in Jewish history (part 1 is especially weak in this respect) and the celebration of Jewish victories on the battlefield. Even the love interest between Achsah, daughter of the Israelite elder Caleb, and the young warrior Othniel is little more than tepidly charming, while their part 1 duet ‘Our limpid streams’ makes for a highly unlikely candidate for inclusion on a CD of favourite Handel duets.


Joshua received its first performance at Covent Garden on 9 March 1748, subsequently being revived in 1752 and again in 1754, on both occasions with revisions made by Handel that were significant on the latter occasion. It soon became one of Handel’s more popular oratorios, being one of the few to retain popularity in its entirety after Handel’s death, possibly at least in part due to the rapidly attained and ubiquitous popularity of ‘See, the conqu’ring hero’, which Handel of course later appended to Judas Maccabaeus.


The performance given as the concluding event in the 2014 Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music was a notable event on two counts. It marked the end of the 30-year association with Lufthansa, a landmark that means the festival must now seek a new sponsorship partner, and, secondly, it was the first time the festival had collaborated with the Göttingen International Handel Festival, Europe’s oldest early music festival. In the event it would be pleasing to report that the Göttingen forces left London as ‘conqu’ring heros’, but for this listener at least it wasn’t quite like that.  I have to confess to remaining somewhat puzzled by Laurence Cummings’ extravagant reputation as a Handelian. While his direction is fundamentally stylish and neat, there are to my mind too many later stylistic accretions such as the tendency to favour cantabile line at the expense of articulation and exaggerated ritardandos at final cadences. Here, much of the weak part 1 took on a soporific air, not aided by Cummings’ proclivity for extremes of tempo in an air such as Othniel’s ‘Awful, pleasing being’, which was taken too slowly. However, like all Othniel’s music it was sung by mezzo Renata Pokupić with a sense of dramatic projection (if not always in flawless English) that could with advantage have been emulated by several of her fellow soloists. Part 2 is substantially stronger and here Cummings, aided by the excellent playing from the Göttingen Festival Orchestra, whipped up some exciting moments in the warlike music. Especially noteworthy was Caleb’s splendid and superbly sung ‘See, the raging flames’, a particular high point given the burnished tonal lustre brought to the air by bass Tobias Berndt, who in part 3 also delivered an affectingly noble account of one of the oratorio’s finest numbers, ‘Shall I in Mamre’s fertile plain’. Joshua himself is one of the great bores of Handel’s oratorios, a status that Kenneth Tarver was unable to mitigate, his pleasantly mellifluous but slightly grainy tenor on this occasion lacking real character while also prone to pitch insecurity and an inability to articulate passaggi with precision. Anna Dennis’ Achsah was long on charm, if less so on vocal allure and she was not helped by the unusually rapid tempo set by Cummings in her most famous number, ‘Oh, had I Jubal’s lyre’. Ornaments were applied relatively sparingly, and as so depressingly often there was not a genuine vocal trill to be heard from the soloists throughout the evening. The NDR Choir (Hamburg) has for many years been Göttingen’s ‘house choir’ and as has invariably been the case it turned in an accomplished performance, with a full-blooded and dynamic contribution to the big choruses. It was a surprise to find Cummings retaining the Chrysander edition’s erroneous ‘Chorus of Virgins’ for the second stanza of ‘See, the conqu’ring hero’. It is a duet for soprano and mezzo soloists; we even know the names of the two original singers, since they are listed in the autograph score.       

[1] See Ruth Smith Handel’s Oratorios and Eighteenth Century Thought (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 233-261) for a  detailed discussion on this topic.


[2] Winton Dean Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (revised edition, Oxford, 1990), p. 499.