Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Occasional Oratorio @ St George’s, Hanover Square, London

16 April 2018

St George's, Hanover Square

St George’s, Hanover Square (Photo: Marc Eskenazi)

The 2018 London Handel Festival closed with a performance of the composer’s Occasional Oratorio HWV 62, so called because it was written in response to a specific occasion. This was the Jacobite rebellion, which by December 1745 had seen the Duke of Cumberland drive the Stuart armies back into Scotland. The winter weather then saw a hiatus in fighting, and Handel hastily wrote the work across January and the first half of February 1746, essentially as a propaganda tool and morale booster.

The oratorio comprises forty-four movements divided into three parts. Part I generally focuses on the miseries of war and the vengeance of a wrathful God, while Part II considers the blessings of peace. Part III presents a thanksgiving for victory, but at the time the rebels had not actually been defeated prompting Charles Jennens, who wrote the text for several of Handel’s oratorios, to call the piece ‘a triumph for a victory not yet gained’.

The oratorio is undoubtedly a piece of propaganda, and the speed with which Handel wrote it saw him recycle a lot of his old material. However, the way in which everything is forged together is fascinating in its own right. The work has its weaker moments, but such were the composer’s abilities that even the base standard of the music that he simply ‘churned out’ for this particular piece is high. It is also fascinating to consider the texts used by the librettist Newburgh Hamilton, which are fairly disparate but place considerable emphasis on the poetry of John Milton and Edmund Spenser. In this way, although Britain had a constitutional monarchy, having dispensed with the notion of the divine right of Kings, the oratorio continually makes George II the Lord’s anointed, and suggests that any attempt to overthrow him is a sin that God will punish. Similarly, Part III begins with ‘the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea’ taken from Israel in Egypt, but its relevance here derives from the idea of throwing the French into the Channel, the Scots into the Moray Firth or the Spanish into the Irish Sea.

If there is delight to be had in spotting the music that was taken from other pieces, some that was written for this work went on to be used in others. For example, the second minuet from the Music for the Royal Fireworks of 1749 can be found here. Some amusement can also be gleaned from those occasions when the re-use of music seems a little clumsy. For example, the final rousing chorus, sung well by the London Handel Singers, uses the music of Zadok the Priest but the opening line ‘Blessed are all they that fear the Lord’ is not as long as ‘Zadok the priest / And Nathan the prophet / Anointed Solomon king’, prompting words in the middle of it to be repeated. It then moves straight from the first line to ‘God save the King’ omitting the entire ‘And all the people rejoiced’ section.

Nevertheless, there are also many subtle allusions to other works so that the opening to one aria sounds vaguely reminiscent of ‘Se pietà di me non senti’ from Giulio Cesare. In this way, although some movements were directly lifted from other pieces, across the work as a whole Handel was drawing from his huge palette of tools and ideas, built up over the preceding decades, to develop new arias. The speed with which he was writing may have led him to rely more heavily upon it, and to be less innovative in what he produced. In essence, however, this was no different to the standard technique of taking pre-existing ideas a step further in every composition, which is a feature of much, but especially Baroque, music. This said, it is still possible that Handel drew more heavily on his other works than we appreciate, because it may be that we are little aware of many of those that acted as sources because today they are so rarely performed.

The London Handel Orchestra, conducted from the harpsichord by Laurence Cummings, played with passion and commitment, but also integrity. Particularly impressive were its performances of the Overture and Symphony that began Parts I and III respectively. In the four soloists we were treated to Fflur Wyn’s sweet and focused soprano, Galina Averina’s own intriguing soprano, Alexander Sprague’s light but full tenor and Lisandro Abadie’s commanding bass-baritone. The Occasional Oratorio does not show Handel at his best, but this is exactly the type of piece that the London Handel Festival should be presenting, as it increases our knowledge of the range of things that he composed, and of the context in which he wrote. For all of its weaknesses, there is still a huge amount of merit in the piece and, especially when it is delivered to the standard that was achieved here, a performance can make for a hugely enjoyable evening.

Details of the 2019 London Handel Festival will appear on the designated website in due course.

The King’s Consort’s 2010 recording of the Occasional Oratorio, conducted by Robert King, is available on the Hyperion label.

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