'Alexander's Feast' is one of Handel's most melodically rich, compelling and satisfying vocal works. Its length, about an hour and a half, was considered a bit too short for the great Saxon's own London audiences, so for the various performances he filled it out by inserting a concerto or two. But, for listening purposes nowadays – especially at home – the work's length and variety are just fine, and so any extra freebies are unnecessary. Some might feel that the work alone is short measure for a two-disc set, and indeed a couple of the available recordings do throw in one or two concerti grossi or a harp concerto; but personally I don't think we need them, no matter how good they are, because the oratorio itself is a superb and well-rounded masterpiece in itself.
I've been listening to four of these recordings recently, and writing a review on each of them. Any readers who happen to look in on the other reviews, please be kind enough to excuse the repetition of these two paragraphs of introduction - which saves me trying to repeat the same ideas in four different ways. The four versions I've been paying attention to are the present one directed by Harry Christophers, and those under Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Benjamin Lack and Marcus Bosch. Of these, Lack and Bosch are fairly recent at the time of writing, whereas the other two are from the previous century. They are all very different, the comparisons are fascinating, and it may or may not be surprising to say that I found the two versions by the lesser-known directors and ensembles to be my favourites.
The present 1990 recording, from The Sixteen and the Symphony of Harmony and Invention directed by Harry Christophers, has many merits. It is polished to perfection, finely phrased, not in any way eccentric but very much in mainstream Handelian style by today’s historically-informed standards. The soloists - soprano Nancy Argenta, bass Michael George, and Ian Partridge in the crucial tenor role - are all excellent. Some of the tempi are on the slow side and lacking in energy, and in general this is not a striking or especially enterprising rendition, but unexceptionable at all times. The worst aspect, in my view, is the poor recorded balance, allowing the choir to overwhelm the vital instrumental parts in many places. The choral sound is also quite harsh in louder passages. So the solo numbers generally work better than the big choral movements.
In line with Handel’s own expedient measures to lengthen the evening, two concerti are included. The first, the Harp Concerto in B flat, op. 4 no. 6, is inserted into the earlier part, after the recitative ‘Timotheus plac’d on high’, where it fits very well. It’s also beautifully played, with Andrew Lawrence-King taking the solo part. At the end of the oratorio, we also get the Organ Concerto in G minor, op. 4 no, again quite nicely played with Paul Nicholson as soloist. The second disc is concluded by Handel’s additional chorus ‘Your voices tune and raise them high’ – a decent addition which is well worth having, but afflicted by the same problem of choral balance as before.
Booklet notes are very good, and the text is supplied. I would have been inclined to rate the performance itself at four stars, but for me the poor recording balance - especially in view of strong competition from more recent versions under Benjamin Lack and Marcus Bosch - must reduce this set to three stars.