For the inauguration of their own label, William Christie and his period ensemble Les Arts Florissants give George Frideric Handel's 1744 oratorio Belshazzar a brilliant performance in meticulous Baroque style, yet sacrifice none of the work's excitement. The story from the Book of Daniel of the defeat of Belshazzar by Cyrus the Great and the end of the Jewish captivity in Babylon is presented in Handel's characteristic heroic manner. Like the composer's masterpiece Messiah, which preceded it by three years, Belshazzar offers dramatic recitatives, moving arias, and vigorous choruses that are almost as thrilling and satisfying, but for the work's comparative unfamiliarity. Christie's aim is to make the public better acquainted with Baroque masterpieces, and this initial offering is an impressive beginning for the edition. Featuring Rosemary Joshua as Nitocris, countertenor Iestyn Davies as Daniel, and Allan Clayton as Belshazzar, the performance boasts some of the finest Handel vocalists around, and the choir is marvelously agile and clear in its diction, so the singing is superb. Add to this the authentic instrumentation and masterful playing of the group, and Christie's imaginative conducting, which never fails to surprise, and this may be the most stimulating and convincing version of Belshazzar available.
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