The occasion was the second Jacobite rebellion of 1745, in which Bonnie Prince Charlie’s forces came as far south through England as Derby. Handel quickly stitched together Occasional Overture to rally support for the government of George II, before the Duke of Cumberland was despatched to defeat the uprising at Culloden the next year. Clearly the very specific political circumstances of the Oratorio’s creation have prevented it from becoming anything more than a curiosity of Handel’s output, but it still encompasses considerable variety (despite the bombast of its choruses with trumpets and timpani) and invention that makes the odd hearing worthwhile.
In the considerable number of Airs, the singers were more than merely serviceable, but they did not quite manage to enliven the work as a convincing musical drama. Admittedly it is difficult to do that with what is effectively a piece of agitprop for the Hanoverian regime, calling on God, for instance to “bless the true church, and save the king” (i.e. the Protestant Church of England, and George II respectively) in a sequence of numbers, some of which borrow from existing works: Athalia and Israel in Egypt are drawn upon (the ‘Hailstones’ chorus is taken over from the latter, for example, drawing a contrast between the oppressive Egyptians of the book of Exodus, and the Jacobite rebels); and the Oratorio rounds off with a shortened version of Zadok the Priest to remind audiences which claimant to the British throne had properly been anointed at Westminster Abbey in 1727.
Fflur Wyn acquitted herself with flair in the generally bright and florid music for the soprano. Galina Averina’s grasp of English was not absolutely secure, and so her singing (in the music really allotted to an alto) was more of an anonymous drawl at times. Alexander Sprague brought character to the tenor’s varied numbers, and Lisandro Abadie was richly-toned in the bass role, if perhaps wooden in delivery, though he provided a solid point of focus in counterpoint to the radiant trumpet solo of ‘To God our strength’, which recalls another of Handel’s royal compositions, the opening of the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne of thirty years before.
Laurence Cummings directed the London Handel Orchestra in a performance which was both stately and spirited, if sometimes heavy-handed so that the score became over-emphatic (even accounting for its propaganda purposes). The London Handel Singers were crisp and fluent in the choruses, however, though occasionally caught out by some of the odd stresses in Handel’s word-setting in the meters he chose. All the forces concerned clearly enjoyed the opportunity to end with the adaptation of Zadok the Priest in a fluid but dignified reading from Cummings. This was a rare treat for Handelians, then, but did not make any particular case for hearing this Oratorio more often.