The Choice of Hercules, cantate HWV69 + Maurice Greene: Hearken unto me, ye Holy children / Susan Gritton, sop. - Alice Coote, mez. - Charles Daniels, tén. - Robin Blaze, contreténor - The King's Consort & ch忖r, dir. Robert King
Throughout his life Handel was an inveterate recycler both of other people's music and his own; The Choice of Hercules (1751) consists for the most part of music he had written the year before for Tobias Smollett's Alceste, a play intended for Covent Garden's 1750 season but never performed. Unwilling to see his efforts go to waste, Handel contrived an hour-long "interlude" based on a poem by Joseph Spence and probably adapted by his regular librettist Thomas Morell. The story is a slight slice of classical mythology: Hercules must choose between the temptations of Pleasure or the righteousness of Virtue. The outcome is hardly a surprise, and only in the 18th-century theatre could Hercules plausibly be portrayed as a castrato, but the story is merely a flimsy excuse for a succession of splendid solo arias and choruses.
With the exception of a small tenor part (here sung by Charles Daniels), the soloists are all in the high register (soprano, mezzo and countertenor) yet their music is of such variety of colour that there's no sense of sameness. The very compactness of the score ensures that there are no dull moments, but especially outstanding are Virtue's stately "Go, assert thy heav'nly race", a dotted-rhythm Purcellian chorus "So shalt thou gain immortal praise" and Hercules' limpid "Yet can I hear that dulcet lay".
Maurice Greene's 1728 anthem Hearken Unto Me, Ye Holy Children is a welcome makeweight, though inevitably perhaps it seems rather foursquare when placed next to Handel's exuberant invention. Robert King and his King's Consort are Handelians par excellence of course; Susan Gritton, Alice Coote and Robin Blaze are a secure trio of soloists in the Handel, and bass Peter Harvey joins for the Greene. The result is an important addition to Hyperion's marvellous Handel series. --Mark Walker