Joshua can hardly be called one of the more popular Handel oratorios. Although having enjoyed success in the 18th century, it’s rarely performed today and is mostly remembered for “See, the conqu’ring hero comes”, a chorus that is, ironically, better known as a part of Judas Maccabeus. If not particularly outstanding, Joshua is by no means a mediocre work, and the chance to hear this piece in the Liszt Academy's Grand Hall, thanks to conductor Pál Németh's dedication to performing the lesser known Handel oratorios, was much welcome.

David Szigetvári © Veronika Éder
David Szigetvári
© Veronika Éder

Joshua was composed after Judas Maccabeus and Alexander Balus, and it followed the theme set by the two previous works: the wars and victories of ancient Israel. Based on the Book of Joshua, the oratorio depicts the taking of the Promised Land: the Jewish people’s passage into Canaan, the siege of Jericho and the conquest of the city of Debir. It’s a string of loosely connected episodes rather than a coherent plot, with stock characters populating the libretto in the form of the martial leader Joshua, his general/advisor Caleb, and the young lovers Achsah and Othniel. The most dramatic moments portray the highest and lowest points in the fate of the Jewish people, the depiction of which is entrusted mainly to the orchestra and chorus: a challenge that the Savaria Baroque Orchestra and the Kodály Choir Debrecen proved to be more than up for.

The oratorio relies heavily on choruses, involving the choir in no less than fourteen numbers (only one of which was cut here). Singing with a lush, opulent sound that filled up the hall, the Kodály Choir Debrecen delivered an appropriately dramatic performance, moving seamlessly between the awe of “The nations tremble”, the dejection of “How soon our tow'ring hopes are cross'd” and the jubilant celebrations of “Glory to God!” and “See, the conqu’ring hero comes”. They were well-matched in performance by the Savaria Baroque Orchestra. Under Pál Németh’s energetic leadership, it played with exuberance and luxurious warmth, accentuating the fine details of the score and bringing the dramatic tension in the piece to life with striking vividness (particularly thrilling during the scenes at the siege of Jericho). The aural grandeur created by orchestra and choir and the lively joyfulness of their playing alone made this performance worth attending.

It was disappointing, then, that the soloists’ performances did not quite match the same standard. Beyond vocal struggles, an obvious blemish was the issue of diction throughout the cast: words were often minced, the pronunciation serviceable at very best, an issue that was not present in much the same ensemble’s performance of Solomon two years ago.

Singing the title role, Dávid Szigetvári fortunately showed no sign of this trouble, and delivered the clear standout performance of the evening. His bright, clean tenor was ideally suited to the role and he showed off remarkable technical security with a silvery, smooth legato, amazing breath control and a considerable ease with the coloratura runs that made his arias the consistent vocal highlights of the piece.

Kornélia Bakos as Othniel was vocally solid, her earthy mezzo especially pleasant when blending together with Krisztina Jónás’ gleaming soprano in their duets, but her performance was marred by unclear diction. Jónás’ Achsah was similarly a mixed bag. Though long-spun vocal lines were sung beautifully in “To vanity and earthly pride”, the more rapid passages in “Hark, ‘tis the linnet and the thrush” posed a noticeable issue that Jónás struggled to cope with. László Jekl made for an unconvincing Caleb: though his gravelly bass shone in “Shall I in Mamre's fertile plain”, he did not fare well in his other arias, struggling considerably with both the coloratura and the high notes in “See the raging flames arise”. Nóra Ducza’s light, sparkly soprano delighted in her minor appearances as the Angel and one of the soloists in “See the godlike youth advance”. 

In the end, even with the uneven performance of the cast, the dedication and quality of the performance of Pál Németh and his forces made for an engaging evening of music-making and I can only look forward to whichever Handel oratorio they will take on next.

***11