Belshazzar contains some of Handel’s most distinctive, colourful and “operatic” music, so it remains something of a mystery as to why it’s so rarely performed. On this hearing it deserves to be heard more regularly, but there again it’s unlikely that it will often receive so perfect a performance as this.
Sir Charles Mackerras delivered a sublime performance of the oratorio, filled with an operatic intensity that verges on perfection. The electrifying rendition kept a packed, attentive Royal Albert Hall audience enthralled for over three hours no mean feat these days, it has to be said.
Having received the libretto from Charles Jennens in July 1744, Handel had completed the full score of Belshazzar by the end of October the same year but the speed at which it was composed is in no way indicative of the quality of the work.
The undoubted hero of the evening was Mackerras, who conducted with the sort of energy, verve and brio that you’d expect from someone half his age (he’s a youthful 82). In the process, he drew gloriously nuanced playing from a consistently alert Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, faultless throughout. Their excellence was matched by the full-blooded singing of the Choir of the Enlightenment whose contribution, whether as Persians, Jews or Babylonians made the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end. As a choir they are peerless in this repertoire, and unsurpassed in their homogeneity.
There was a fine quintet of singers, all of whom are fully-versed in the Handel idiom. Although the work’s called Belshazzar, Handel doesn’t give the despotic titular King a huge amount to sing. Despite this, tenor Paul Groves made his mark, despatching Handel’s furioso writing with the necessary bite. The role of his mother, Nitocris, fits Rosemary Joshua like a glove and, in a tour de force performance throughout, she was especially breathtaking in the coloratura of The leafy honours of the field.
Robert Gleadow used his mellifluous bass voice to telling effect as Gobrias and was especially moving in his lament Opress’d with never-ceasing grief.
We had not one, but two counter-tenors in the roles of Cyrus and Daniel. As the former Bejun Mehta was making his Proms debut and whilst impressive, was slightly overshadowed by Iestyn Davies who, as the prophet Daniel, produced not only some of the finest singing of the evening, but some of the most heartfelt Handel singing I’ve heard in London for some time. His Lament not thus, O Queen, in vain was delivered with a simplicity that touched the heart his star is most definitely in the ascendant.
This was an evening of near perfection that will live long in the memory.