HANDEL: Joshua HWV 64 – Kenneth Tarver (Joshua)/ Tobias Berndt (Caleb)/ Renata Pokupic (Othniel)/Anna Dennis (Achsah)/ NDR Choir/ Göttingen Festival Orch./ Laurence Cummings – Accent ACC 26403 (2 CDs), 115 min. [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Joshua is one of the four works, and three “victory oratorios” which were penned to celebrate the Hanoverian Dynasty’s triumph over the Catholic pretender to the throne, Charles Edward Stuart. The other three are the Occasional Oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus, and Alexander Balus, each designed to focus attention on the great “military leader”, which in Handel’s mind was something that could lead to all sort of identifications. The “plots” of these pieces were hardly conducive to specifics, even though most people at the time would have no trouble seeing them as a paean to the trumping of the House of Stuart (and especially “Bonnie Prince Charlie”), something with which Handel himself was quite in sympathy.
The story of Joshua, taken from the biblical book of the same name, turns on the select passages in the book where after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, Canaan is conquered by the Israelites. The libretto concentrates on the defeat of the towns of Jericho, Ai, and Debir, with a love story intertwined among the action. All of this revolves around three outstanding points of light in this work, the fall of the walls of Jericho at the beginning of Act II, the cessation of movement of the sun and moon at the end of the same act, and the first appearance of the famous “See, the conqu’ring hero comes”, known mainly today from later incarnations of Judas Maccabaeus that gave it it’s fame.
Kenneth Tarver is a fine Joshua, and the other four members of the oratorio “cast” perform with dedication and flair so inherent in the characterizations Handel provides in this music. Laurence Cummings uses a small–but not unusually so–orchestra, quite common in many Handelian recordings, about 21 strings plus assorted winds and continuo. This is actually Cummings’s second go ’round in this work, quite unusual for a piece like this these days, and his first (on Somm Records from 2009) was well received. I have not heard that one, but I am also not sure, according the manifest quality of this recording, that I need to. There are only six recordings available at the moment, from 1993 until now, so this one serves as the latest in sound and scholarship, though to call it the “best” is really not possible at this juncture. Yet I promise that no one investing in this reading will be disappointed, and this is Handel at his considerable best.