HANDEL: Susanna (complete oratorio) – Emily Fons (Susanna)/ Christopher Lowrey (Joacim)/ Colin Balzer (1st Elder)/ Raimund Nolte (2nd Elder)/ Ciara Hendrick (Daniel)/ Göttingen Festival Orchestra/ NDR Choir, Laurence Cummings – Accent ACC26406 (3 CDs), 184:00 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

New recordings, especially as fine as this one, are always welcome. But Hunt still rules the roost.

Susanna marked a turning point in Handel’s compositional activity. England at that time had come to expect certain things from Handel oratorios—religious themes, lots of choruses, and relatively sophisticated arias of decent complexity. The oratorio struck many at the time as more of an opera, with simpler arias, fewer choruses, and a theme that, while biblical, touches on far more than a simple morality tale. The story of Susanna, taken from the apocryphal writings appended to the Book of Daniel (though included as canonical in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint), involves a woman leered upon as she bathes by lecherous Elders of Israel, who then accuse her of adultery in order to cover their own disgusting lasciviousness. The Prophet Daniel in the end comes to her defense, and all ends well.

One can easily see the operatic implications in this narrative, and Handel pumped it full of some marvelous music, complete with touches of comedy. After the “victory” oratorios, including Judas Maccabaeus and Joshua, Handel turned to a lighter operatic style with Susanna, and it was not immediately accepted, though time has certainly proved its worth.

The production, of the 2016 International Handel Festival in Göttingen, has much to commend it, even though the English is not perfect and the cast mildly uneven. It’s maybe not fair to compare Emily Fons with the incandescent Lorraine Hunt on Harmonia mundi’s McGegan recording, and she is not up to that Olympian standard, but does a creditable job. Ciara Hendrick, on the other hand, easily maintains the highest standards. I’ll probably give the edge to the Göttingen Festival Orchestra over the Philharmonia Baroque on HM, as that band was never a first-place competitor, and there are not many Susannas out there, so this one is certainly welcome. Nevertheless, the caveat must be offered that if you haven’t heard Hunt in the role, you haven’t heard the role. Recommended.

—Steven Ritter