It would be a great shame, this being the oratorio's sole recording to date besides one dreadfully amateurish recording by Rudolph Palmer, if this recording were not up-to-scratch. "Alexander Balus" is full of wonderful music, the vehicle for a very satisfying plot. Fortunately, this recording is excellent. Though it has been referred to as one of several distinctly militaristic oratorios (such as Judas Maccabaeus and Joshua), the referrence is misleading because Balus contains a dramatic thread one can follow and appreciate without too much distraction, and one that is not really dominated by military action in the slightest. To illustrate my point I've summarised the plot in the next four paragraphs.
Alexander Balus, who has recently conquered the throne of Syria, offers his friendship to Ptolemee, the King of Egypt. Love soon blossoms between Alexander and Ptolemee's daughter Cleopatra. The highlights of the opening scene include Cleopatra's air "Hark! hark! he strikes the golden lyre" the chorus of Asiates' "Ye happy nations round". My favourite part of Act I is Scene Three, when Cleopatra and her attendant, Aspasia, discuss and anticipate the merits of true love in a lovely series of arias culminating in a stunning, joyful and utterly thrilling duet "O what pleasures past expressing". For this duet alone, it is beyond belief that Alexander Balus is so little represented on the stage and in the recording studio.
In Act II Alexander asks Ptolomee for his daughter's hand in marriage and Ptolomee obliges, sending word that his bride awaits him at Ptolomais. However, a courtier then appears bringing word that there is a plot against Alexander's life - the would-be assassin being none other than Jonathan, chief of the Jews and Alexander's friend and brother! Alexander is horrified, and Jonathan dismayed by the slight; even Cleopatra (still awaiting Alexander's arrival) becomes apprehensive, though she knows not why, and is comforted by Aspasia. Next, Ptolomee's scheming is revealed - "yes, I've fawn'd, but only to devour." The wedding takes place as Act II draws to a close.
Act III opens with Cleopatra awaiting Alexander in a garden; she sings a gentle air, "Here amid the shady woods". The peaceful scene is interrupted by the entrance of ruffians sent by Ptolomee to return his daughter to him so that she may be married to Demetrius, whom Ptolomeee intends to install on Syria's throne as a puppet monarch. There follows the reaction of Alexander (the marvellous "Fury with red sparkling eyes"), Jonathan and Aspasia as Ptolomee's scheming treachery becomes apparent.
Meanwhile, Cleopatra will have none of her father's attempts to paint Alexander the villain and he the concerned father - and Ptolomee leaves for battle. Soon Cleopatra is brought news of her husband's death - the lamentative aria that follows, "O take me from this hateful night", is truly one of the most haunting that Handel ever wrote. Next she is brought the news of the death of her father too - and by now she has moved beyond grief and asks only for the gift of serenity in the unique and deeply, deeply moving "Convey me to some peaceful shore".
As for the quality of the recording, I have already said that it's excellent. Catherine Denley is a very convincing Alexander, delivering a flawless vocal and dramatic performance. Lynne Dawson, one of Britain's best-loved sopranos, sings the part of Cleopatra wonderfully, and Claron McFadden is very well suited to the part of Apsasia. Michael George is suitably villainous, though he and, especially, Charles Daniels could have done with being in slightly better voice (not that either of them were in bad voice as such, but they, or Daniels at any rate, just sounded a little constricted). Robert King's conducting and the King's Consort's performance is exciting, flowing and thoughtful in terms of the drama, and the choir does a good job too. The recording lacks some of crispness that one is used to from recent recordings on Erato, for example, and may not exhibit the finesse or firm grasp one associates with William Christie or Marc Minkowski, but that's me thinking wishfully how nice it would be if either of those conductors would record it . . . That said, this recording is well-worth the investment and, though I would like to give it four-and-a-half stars in anticipation of an ideal recording, the five stars I have given it are well-deserved.