I came away from hearing this version with renewed enthusiasm for the work.
First, a confession. Much as I enjoy recordings of Handel’s operas in prospect, in practice by the end - and sometimes the start - of the third disc I am finding difficulty in paying full attention. Over-complex plots, lengthy
secco recitatives and extended
da capos all take their toll. Probably this reflects more on me than on the works, but maybe I am not alone and others too prefer Handel in shorter, more concentrated, bursts. For such people, if they have not encountered it before, I can confidently recommend “Alexander’s Feast”. It has great musical variety including choruses and arias of considerable imagination and beauty, not too many
da capo arias, and a text derived from a splendid poem by John Dryden. The plot concerns a feast given by Alexander the Great after his defeat of Darius, King of Persia, at which Alexander is entertained by Timotheus who arouses various emotions before being replaced by St Cecilia.
This recording is of a live performance and despite some reservations about it as heard on this disc it clearly was a very enjoyable event to be at. It gets off to a good start with an alert performance of the Overture; indeed the orchestra and Joachim Carlos Martini’s direction are the strongest points about this disc. They play with verve and colour, and great rhythmic bite. The soloists are less satisfactory, all adopting a somewhat heavy style with an occasionally hectoring tone that does not suit Handel’s vocal writing. In addition it soon becomes clear that none are native speakers of English and there are a few curious pronunciations and accentuations from the men and an almost total lack of verbal clarity from the soprano.
There is however a much greater problem with this disc. It is the actual sound of the chorus as heard here. I use those words advisedly, as it may well be that heard live they sounded fine, but as heard here they appear to be in a quite different, and much less suitable, acoustic to the soloists and orchestra. This boxy sound has a depressing effect every time the chorus sing. Although this is only in parts of the work it is frequent enough to be more than a trivial irritation. There is however the practical virtue of managing to include the whole work on a single disc, even with a brief additional harp movement representing Timotheus’ skill on the lyre - but not the Concerto which Handel himself included. This is not mentioned in Keith Anderson’s otherwise admirable notes. I understand that the text and a German translation are available on the Naxos website.
There is strong competition for CDs of “Alexander’s Feast”, and even restricting it to those at bargain price fine recordings are available conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Philip Ledger. The present version does nonetheless have solid virtues in terms of its general spirit and even, where necessary, verve. Despite my earlier comments, I was never bored listening to it and I did end with a renewed enthusiasm for the work. If you do not have a recording of it already this would certainly fill an important gap and give considerable pleasure, even if you may need to look elsewhere, possibly to the version by The Sixteen under Harry Christophers on two discs (but with extra material) to find fuller satisfaction.
-- John Sheppard, MusicWeb International