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GRAMOPHONE (01/2021)
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Reviewer: David Vickers

Alexander the Great’s drunken banquet leading to the cruel slaughter of the innocent population of Persepolis is compared in a glib booklet note to some sort of wild party with celebrity DJ Timotheus spinning the decks; there is no mention of Dryden’s authorship, the ode’s literary themes or the circumstances of Handel’s 1736 setting. Vox Orchestra play the Overture with lively vigour, and the Minuet has lightly tripping sensuousness. Lorenzo Ghirlanda’s judicious pacing flows crisply and exploits vivacious sonorities. The 21-strong Vox Choir produce ardent precision (‘The list’ning crowd’), gutsy attack and dynamic shading (‘The many rend the skies’), bellicose thunder (‘Break his bands of sleep asunder’), and sublimely balanced harmonies and counterpoint (‘At last divine Cecilia came’). Momentary hints of Germanic pronunciation in Dryden’s verses might bother other listeners more than me. Tobias Hunger’s recitatives incline towards being cautious and overly deliberate but the tenor delivers a hardbiting rendition of ‘The princes applaud with a furious joy’ (the orchestra snarling aggressively) and there is doleful delicacy

in ‘Thus, long ago, ere heaving bellows learn’d to blow’. Marie Sophie Pollak’s crystalline phrasing has a suitably dulcet conversation with cellist Irena Josifoska (playing a five-string cello) in ‘Softly sweet in Lydian measures’. There could afford to be flirtatiousness from both the soprano and violins when depicting how the courtesan Thais ‘sighed, and looked, and sighed again’, and the eventual observation that ‘Thais led the way, and like another Helen, she fir’d another Troy’ lacks its essential irony and sorrow (to be fair, it eludes almost all performers that a horrendous war crime is in progress).

Krešimir Stražanac’s versatile timbres and alertness to the intricacies of Dryden’s verses produce an entertaining account of ‘Bacchus, ever fair and young’ (with braying natural horns at the forefront), and a spirited ‘Revenge, Timotheus cries’ – although the solo trumpet is submerged by the vibrancy of the oboes and strings, and the texture of violas and bassoons illustrating the Grecian ghosts of unburied soldiers takes a while to become as supernatural as it needs to be. Nevertheless, in many respects this is an exuberant and wholehearted account of Handel’s ode to the Power of Music.

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