Everyday Rather Live in Classic Eras

New Handel’s Belshazzar on Les Arts Florissants reviews

Quite aside from a libretto which includes the delightful exclamation ‘Nebo stoopeth!’, there’s plenty to admire in Handel’s Biblical oratorio Belshazzar (1745). Fiery arias, grand military choruses, duets dripping with pathos – it really delivers the goods. But how does the French ensemble Les Arts Florissants, in their first recording on their own label, cope with such a famous English work? Wonderfully well, is the answer. Conductor William Christie assembles a tip-top Anglophone group of soloists, and draws some emotionally detailed work from the polyglot chorus, who are equally good as drunken Babylonian nobles or oppressed and anguished Jews. The drama springs to life in Christie’s hands, and in the famous ‘writing on the wall’ scene – in which Belshazzar sees a mysterious flaming hand prophesying his fate – he creates an atmosphere of shock and panic. There are a few drawbacks. The chorus members are placed a bit too far from the microphones, and it diminishes the immediacy of their impact. And sometimes a single track will include a long sequence of numbers (aria-recitative-chorus), which makes the recording hard to negotiate if you feel like cherry-picking. But the pluses are many. Allan Clayton is by turns haughty and desperate as the proud Babylonian King Belshazzar, and Rosemary Joshua is tender and supplicating, but never cloying, as his mother Nicrotis. Jonathan Lemalu, Iestyn Davies and Caitlin Hulcup create vividly drawn supporting characters as well. Nebo – whoever he is – has not stoopethed in vain.