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Fanfare Magazine: 39:1 (09-10/2015) 
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Reviewer: Dan Sperrin

Handel’s great three-part oratorio Joshua (1748) is one of four so-called “victory oratorios,” written to interpret a Hanoverian victory over Catholic Stuart rebels. As such, it is essentially German in character (whereas his operia seria work is highly Italian), which is a sly stylistic decision for an English audience (!), and it pointedly maps the story of Joshua onto the contemporary political milieu. The recording is truly exciting.

The highlight, really, is act II. The first act is classic Handel throughout: The terse introductory matter and narrative development are typical of his work from Rodelinda (1725) through to Ezio (1732), and I advise comparing Joshua with any recordings of these two. This is par for the course for Handel lovers. Act III, with similarly predictability, culminates the interweaving domestic and public plots, the structure and style of which we can also find in Rodelinda and Xerxes (1738). I am trying to cover up the fact that I find these acts of Joshua a little dull. However, act II is magisterial. The musicianship in this recording is brilliant throughout, but here the energy of the ensemble really picks up, and all the intricate movements of act II are brought to life with great performative élan. The collapse of the walls of Jericho and the halting of the sun and moon begin and end the movement, so it is full of exciting narrative. The (near-comic) halting of the spheres—emphasized with a held A in the strings—is a technical joy, and a famous moment in the Handel corpus. In the essay Musical Expression (1752), Charles Avison showed contempt for this cheap literalizing of plot in the score: “What shall we say to excuse this same great composer, who, in his Oratorio of Joshua, condescended to amuse the vulgar part of his audience, by letting them hear the sun stand still.” Call me vulgar, but it amuses me.

The continuo players on this disc are absolutely heroic. Of course the vocalists are very good, and the music is taken at a refreshingly moderate tempo to compensate for these intricate musical moments such as the halting of the spheres. However, the continuo players are absolute troopers for the whole performance, keeping a wonderful pace and a steely sense of proportion. I am constantly listening for the twangs of harpsichord, which are brilliantly mixed—heavy, loud, but bright enough to be heard—and the lower strings are skillfully interlaced with this. It is perhaps the best continuo playing I have ever heard in a Handel recording. I would really like the group to record the Brandenburg Concertos: I would like to hear this brilliant camaraderie and exceptional bass work in the context of something purely instrumental and difficult. At any rate, I recommend this recording of Joshua heartily, for both act II and the performance of the group. I suggest listening to the Joshua of 2000 (Hyperion) for comparison, which is far surpassed by this one.



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