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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE BEST BUY SINCE MANHATTAN?, 22 Aug. 2003
By 
DAVID BRYSON (Glossop Derbyshire England) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Handel: Saul / Alexander's Feast / The Choice of Hercules (Audio CD)
5 discs for the price of 1, with excellent sound and performances that are never less than good and sometimes superlative, was my idea of a notable bargain. I find Ledger very liveable-with as an exponent of Handel – authentic ma non troppo, using small forces, countertenors, boy trebles in the chorus and a full continuo, but also instruments that 20th/21st century ears are comfortable with and not afraid to take a slow tempo where that serves expressiveness in the modern sense. Handel does not need any ‘selling’ to me – I find him endlessly fascinating – but I can’t imagine better advocates for him than Ledger or Mackerras to music-lovers who may still balk at ‘all-the-way’ authenticity as offered by, say, McCreesh.
For my own part, I would have bought these 5 discs at almost any price just to hear ‘Revenge Timotheus cries’ in Alexander’s Feast sung by Thomas Allen. It is my very favourite bit of Handelian swashbuckle, in one of my very favourite Handel works. I can never get over the matchless art of Handel’s word-setting, and that in a language that he himself never learned to speak perfectly. Nobody ever came near his instinct for when and how to repeat words and phrases. His solos are often difficult, but he never gives his vocalists instrumental music to sing as Bach regularly does, still less does he subject voices to brutal strain as Verdi would later do. His choral writing was described by Beecham as unapproached since his time. Full texts are not provided here or in the other works, but I doubt you will need to visit the website mentioned – composer and interpreters both ensure that the words can be heard without effort. In Alexander’s Feast there is some slightly dubious intonation by the sopranos (where was the superb Jill Gomez who worked with them in the Ode for St Cecilia’s Day?) but the trumpet-voiced Robert Tear (a born Handel singer) and the great Tom Allen are superb throughout. I commend in particular the marvellous soprano aria ‘The prince unable’, and you should be prepared for a minor confusion at tracks 21-22. These would make more sense as described in the liner-note, but what has happened is that the first section of ‘Revenge Timotheus cries’ and its extraordinary middle section ‘Behold a ghastly band’ have found their way into track 21 leaving only the da capo of ‘Revenge Timotheus cries’ on track 22. Also, without a score to hand I can’t be sure whether some opening notes have dropped out of the first number on cd5 ‘Thais led the way’.
The Choice of Hercules was put together as a perfunctory framework to accommodate some music Handel had done for an opera that never made it to production. The individual numbers are good quality, but it all hardly amounts to more than a recital. However the women soloists are on more reliable form than in the far superior Alexander’s Feast.
With this new Saul I have an alternative to my cherished LP set from Mackerras, and I immediately made the startling discovery that the small part for the High Priest has vanished without comment in Ledger’s version, although his final recitative is allocated to Abner. Neither the Oxford Companion to Music nor the lavishly-produced Mackerras set sheds any light on this, and the Flower biography only makes a fleeting reference to alternative versions of the work, but in truth there is hardly any such thing as a definitive Handel score. Saul contains two famous ‘effects’ – the raising of the ghost of Samuel by the witch of Endor and the Dead March. I would add a third, the hair-raising chorus ‘Envy eldest born of hell’ that starts part 2. The notes in this are easy to sing somehow, but the low pitch makes fullness of tone difficult in the octave plunges on ‘envy’ and the downward marching scales. I still await the performance of my dreams here, but for now Mackerras has the edge. At Endor Mackerras’s John Winfield sings more witchily, but the bassoons in both versions rise to the occasion, and if you are expecting something spectacular from the 3-time in the voices against 4-time in the orchestra, be aware you will have to listen hard to catch the effect. I am not in my element in the dismal genre of funeral marches, but all my life Handel’s Dead March, in its major key, has filled me with awe where Beethoven’s, Chopin’s and Wagner’s efforts leave me cold, and this time it is Ledger who wins hands-down. In general I am grateful to have either version let alone both. The approach is very similar and the recording is excellent in both, Mackerras has better sopranos, Ledger an outstanding tenor and bass. If it were just a matter of Saul, the inclusion of the High Priest in Mackerras would shade it for me – I’m not bothered whether he ‘detracts from the dramatic flow’ etc, as Saul seems to me animated narrative rather than drama as such. More music by Handel is what counts with me, but this 5-disc set is an outstanding collection, which I got mainly for the glorious Alexander’s Feast anyhow. Competent musicologists will no doubt know why Ledger’s pitch is a semitone lower than either Mackerras’s or my piano’s.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ever dramatic and inventive Handel in superb performances, 22 May 2011
By 
Ralph Moore "Ralph operaphile" (Bishop's Stortford, UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Handel: Saul / Alexander's Feast / The Choice of Hercules (Audio CD)
There are individual and even fleeting moments in this music that make me think they alone are worth the (originally very modest) asking price of this set. I am thinking of how Thomas Allen launches into "As great Jehovah lives", the eerie bassoon prelude to the appearance of the prophet Samuel or the sinuous beauty of Paul Esswood's aria "O Lord, whose mercies numberless". This five-disc bargain set offers an undoubted masterpiece in "Saul", an important breakthrough from Italian opera into English choral work in "Alexander's Feast" containing some glorious set pieces and at least one deathless highlight in "Revenge, revenge, Timotheus cries", and a very pleasing makeweight in "The Choice of Hercules", in which the ever frugal Handel utilised some discarded fragments of good music.

These are now venerable recordings in terms of authenticity, recorded between 1974 and 1980, yet I hear nothing jarring or risibly archaic in Ledger's direction or the orchestral playing: he strikes a nice balance between weight and transparency, maintains a properly urgent pulse as required but is unafraid to be flexible with his tempo when the drama of the occasion requires some space to make its effect. The choral singing from the King's College Choir is beautiful - robust as needs be, never falling into the preciousness that can afflict such choirs and while it is possible to carp about individual voices, the standard of solo singing is generally very high. Thomas Allen's heroic and velvety baritone is at its finest throughout; I have always thrilled to Margaret Marshall's liquid, bell-like tones; Esswood is as good as his counter-tenor peer James Bowman: plangent and tender; stalwart artists such as Heather Harper, Helen Watts and Helen Donath are always a blessing, and while I have never been a fan of Robert Tear's bleaty tenor he is on his best behaviour here and very committed -the same can be said of Sally Burgess, whose slightly acidic soprano is nonetheless exciting (in which regard, she is vocally and temperamentally very similar to Felicity Palmer). Ledger's Witch of Endor, Martyn Hill, is rather bland but well sung: I could have done with a touch more Grand Guignol.

Those who require more overtly HIP and supposedly authentic treatment of this music may turn to McCreesh, but I think Ledger's cast and approach serves it best.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb performances of some of Handel's finest music, 15 Mar. 2003
By A Customer
This review is from: Handel: Saul / Alexander's Feast / The Choice of Hercules (Audio CD)
This collection contains three splendid example of Handel's choral music - Saul, Alexander's Feast and The Choice of Hercules. All three are marvellous in their way, and are full of joy and sorrow.
The performances are uniformly excellent. They date from Philip Ledger's time as director of music at King's College, Cambridge (Virgin Classics seem not to have noticed that he has been Sir Philip Ledger for some time now!). The choir feature on all three items, with the English Chamber Orchestra on Saul and Alexander's Feast, and ASMIF on The Choice of Hercules. Former King's choral scholar Robert Tear is a soloist on all three, along with other distinguished performers like Heather Harper and Thomas Allen. Under Ledger, the King's choir take on a bright, slightly hard edged tone. Ledger's empahsis on intonation, ensemble and especially diction means they are always relaible performers on any recording, and they do themselves proud on these recordings. The choir is lively, exciting and sensitive. The orchestras and soloists also give strong account of themselves.
This might not be the best CD for someone starting out on Handel, as there's some quite dense stuff here, but for others, this would be an excellent addition to the Handel collection.
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4 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Saul, a Biblical adventure that announces Mozart, 19 April 2004
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This review is from: Handel: Saul / Alexander's Feast / The Choice of Hercules (Audio CD)
In this oratorio, Handel reaches some peaks of beauty. It is a Biblical episode : the relations between David and Saul from David's victory over Goliath to Saul's defeat in Gilboa. But Handel strongly emphasizes the role of passions in Saul and Merab, even in Jonathan ? Saul's passions are unpredictable but they are declared uncrollable for God. God is impotent in front of human passions that come from the human side of man. This is a change from the standard control of things that the Ancient Testament attributes to God all the time. We are not surprised then when the text speaks of the impotence of reason to control these passions and of the return of natural equilibrium when these passions will have run to their end, which means Saul's death. This strong emphasis on passions, nature and reason is typipcal of this new development of oratorios in England. Handel brings his German Mannheim training, this new musical school that will produce Mozart and romanticism later, into the English tradition of choirs and subtle polyphonic singing. At times his music sounds like Mozart who is still to come. It is definitely ahead of Bach, even if we can read Bach differently today. Handel remains within the religious tradition, the Biblical reference, but moves it towards a more human, enlightened and dramatic content. Even his evocation of the devil with the witch becomes more entertaining than religious. But the great moments are the many symphonies, particularly the harp solo to evoke David, or the « wedding » march between the two duets Michal-David, or the long Dead March and ensuing evocation of Gilboa and the death of Saul and Jonathan. Handel uses the instruments with great expertise, particularly the violins (all the time and yet they are at their best in the introduction to the witch), the trumpets to evoke battle, war, victory, and the timpani to create memorable pulses, beats, rhythms, particularly in the dead march of the end. This is extremely modern for his time. It opens a gate towards the next phase of music : a distanciation from heavy religious reference and the construction of a dramatic and spectacular use of music and situations to create a pageant, a show, an entertainment, even if slightly spiritual. But Handel uses a countertenor for David, just like he will use a mezzo-soprano for Solomon. This countertenor (in the line of a castrato for heroes) sounds young, very young for David, but it is in contrast with all other voices and characters. In contrast with the women (sopranos), with Jonathan (tenor), and with Saul (bass). Theses contrasts are dramatic of course and very expressive. It reaches perfection in the two duets with the soprano Michal in which the voices blend together like pure love, or in the harp solo where the harp is the continuation of the voice, or with the tenor Jonathan in which Jonathan sounds like the voice of manly love and reason, or finally with the bass Saul, a voice that depicts human passions and infernal inspiration. We will regret that this recording cuts off some high priest arias and shifts one aria from David to the soprano Merab, shifting at the same time the evocation of Jonathan's and Saul's deaths from deep manly love and deep manly pardon to a rather sentimental sisterly evocation, though this sister had encouraged Saul in his negative passions and opposed Jonathan's voice of reason. A work of art has to be given in full, and not edited from criteria that we do not even understand. What's more, to know the cuts we have to get the libretto from an outside source because the producer of these CDs does not even tell about the changes.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
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3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hercules: A simplistic story with great music, 21 April 2004
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This review is from: Handel: Saul / Alexander's Feast / The Choice of Hercules (Audio CD)
This late piece by Handel is an entertainment for the court essentially.The structure is simple. The young Hercules is confronted with the choiceof being young and enjoying the pleasures of life and his sex, or thinkingof adulthood and choosing what will make him great in life. So he isconfronted with the charms of Pleasure and the reason of Virtue, with theselfish satisfaction of his carnal drives and the satisfaction of doinggood things of others, for humanity. Pleasure, a soprano, is theembodiment of the eternal woman and the pleasures you may find with her.She is attended by a tenor who sounds like a pimp and in a way an adultlascivious man. Virtue is a mezzo-soprano, deeper and graver. Sherepresents the satisfaction of selfless dedication to the good ofhumanity. Hercules is a countertenor, since he is still very young, a boyeven in a way, or a young man if you prefer, but that amounts to the samething. The countertenor is both the embodiment of this youth and of theheroic destiny and future Hercules is supposed to face and conquer. Handelin this piece is probably aging slightly because he does not seem torealize that his conclusion is very vain : « Virtue will place thee inthat blest abode, Crown'd with immortal youth, among the Gods a God. »That sounds like the promise Mephistopheles is doing to Faust. Vain forsure but also unreasonable. One has to do good for the satisfaction ofbeing useful to other humans and not for the vanity of a crown. The musicthough is very good because of the choice of voices, and because Handel isdefinitely the melting pot of the « mannheim » school, the precursor ofMozart. He tries to invent ternary rhythm and manages in the Air numberfour to integrate a ternary rhythm within a binary pulse. Mozart is reallynot very far. Handel probably got that from popular songs and music, buthe makes it an extremely charming and mesmerizing enrichment that tries togo beyond the very stiff binary pulse of nearly all the music before him.In other words he develops Cecilia's art, though he has asserted in somepieces that Cecilia was the acme of music. The acme is never reached.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
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3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Alexander's Feast invents modern music in England, 20 April 2004
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This review is from: Handel: Saul / Alexander's Feast / The Choice of Hercules (Audio CD)
Handel is finally finding his free inspiration, his personal style. Do notexpect any heroic action in this Ode, not any religious or even ethicalmorality. Cecilia is not even referred to as a saint. No martyrdom forher, no blood, suffering nor tears. She is only referred to as Cecilia,the « inventress of the vocal frame », the great woman who used « Nature'smother-wit and arts » to get music beyond all possible limits. This Ode isonly concerned by music. Timotheus, the old patron, with the help ofBacchus, can do a lot, but not much nevertheless. He can use someintruments like the lyre, the flute or the harp, but that is limited whencompared with the explosion of instruments after Cecilia invents theorgan. He can use intonation and character in singing, but that remainsstill limited. It can sing war and victory, death and defeat, love andpassion, but it cannot go yet as far as the sky, because, with Cecilia,the sky is the limit of music, and only the sky. That new music is anangel offered to us by Heaven to give our life the best experience we canever imagine : « Music to Heaven and her we owe, the greatest blessingthat's below. » And Handel manages to merge together the Englishtradition, especially after the renewing it went through with Purcell whorecaptured the very popular and flexible polyphony of the numerous choirsof this country, the brilliance and lightness of the Italian traditionthat makes every note, every instrument, every musical sentence a gem oftheir own that has to outshine all the others without ever succeedingexcept to always go higher into the light of the sky, the sun and thestars without ever reaching a final end in this search, and the formal andrich German way of constructing music like a cathedral, each stone havinga function in the whole building. This Ode becomes a purely pleasant andentertaining moment and it does not seem to expect anything else : bringpleasure to the people, the pleasure any soldier of life deserves to resttheir limbs and their minds, to bathe their souls in pure beauty. Just afew more years and Mozart will be with us.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
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