~ HWV 70 ~

2 CDs
Recorded in 2003.
Released in 2003.

Jephtha: John Mark Ainsely, tenor
Dominique Labelle, soprano
Wilke te Brummelstroete, mezzo-soprano
Franz Vitzhum, countertenor
William Berger, bass
Netta Or, soprano

Winchester Cathedral Choir (Director: Andrew Lumsden)
The English Concert (on period instruments)
Conductor: Nicholas McGegan

- A live recording from the 2003 Internationale Händel-Festspiele Göttingen. Available only to members of the Göttinger Händel-Gesellschaft. 2 CDs.

If Jephtha is to be truly dramatic, its first half must reek of morally and spiritually nauseating hubris, for only then can Jephtha’s fall convince and the chorus’s cry of “Whatever is is Right”, an implacable statement of eighteenth-century Christian Stoicism, provide its stark lesson on the nature of suffering. So, is this recording one that takes us nearer to the heart of Morell’s and Handel’s stern intentions than earlier recordings? In the main, it is. The liner notes by Dorothea Schröder interestingly investigates the theology of the libretto, though I think she misreads Jephtha’s character: he is no “virtuous and courageous soldier”, but a braggart who insists that Zebul agree to his continued command after victory and who then presumes to set God his own conditions. It is Jephtha’s false understanding of the will of God which propels the story, and that this does not come across strongly enough is a key blemish in an otherwise fine performance by Nicholas McGegan and his musicians.

Recorded over two performances in Göttingen’s cavernous concert hall (I recommend listening on headphones), the mainly authentic sounds of the orchestra are enlived by obbligato coughing. Modern recording techniques mean that the few string players of the English Concert seem greater in number, and, similarly, Winchester’s cathedral choir is made to sound full and vigorous. Disappointingly, William Berg’s Zebul is half-hearted in his crucial first recitative, more like a kindly vicar wringing his hands than a decisive spokesman. His first air, ‘Pour forth’, is much more credible. John Mark Ainsley’s Jephtha lacks heft, though many difficult phrases are navigated with great facility. His recitatives are generally more characterful than his airs, which is no great fault here. On the other hand, whoever sings Storgè must dominate Jephtha when he’s in a domestic setting, and Wilke te Brummelstroete duly strives. She, too, is light-voiced, but this helpfully avoids making her a complete harridan. She expertly brings out the duality of Storgè’s character—her name in Greek means an unstable combination of she-wolf and tender matron. Franz Vitzthum sings sweetly, but why-oh-why does he have to contend in his passionate pantings with an organ continuo? As Iphis, Dominic Labelle avoids saccharine simplicity, instead projecting religious devotion and, yes, sexy womanhood. This is the strongest Iphis I have heard; there’s none of the over-precious brittleness of other singers as Jephtha’s daughter.

The first Part’s initial chorus is rollickingly done, as the Jews reject their pagan ways, though the interpolated drums create an incongruous martial atmosphere. Throughout the oratorio Winchester’s cathedral choir add spontaneity and sure-footed entries—the treble line has a welcome strident rawness. They are at their best in the meteorological and hydrological choruses, riding storms and angry waves. The orchestral accompaniment is regularly appealing, notably in the furious passages. McGegan’s pacing of the drama is as masterly as ever, and though his andante seems faster than his allegro, his accurate judgment impels the drama.

Zebul’s Part 2 air is cut, with no great loss, though the decision to add an organ continuo to Iphis’s ‘Tune the soft’ (and her later airs in Part 2) must have been suggested by her reference to “the Holy Choir”, not Handel; the organ oozes an odour of sanctity when the context is something more akin to human vulnerability. Ainsley’s and McGegan’s representation of Jephtha as an old campaigner recounting his deeds of derring-do in ‘His mighty Arm’ are entirely persuasive. Here at last the animated, vacuous and self-regarding Jephtha is set up for a crashing fall. The boys make their section of Iphis’s ‘Welcome’ air attractively jingoistic, but why does Ainsley throw away the telling phrase “and she dies”? The quartet is finely performed by all concerned. The final two items of Part 2 are dramatically undercharged, but sound beautiful nonetheless.

In Part 3 the organ muddies Ainsley’s excellent singing of ‘Hide thou’. ‘Waft her, Angels’ is of course Part 3’s highlight; it never palls, and Ainsley and the English Concert dispatch it wonderfully. Labelle’s ‘Farewell’ air aches with a candour which is truthful to situation and music, as does the chorus ‘Doubtful Fear’, perplexed by God’s purpose. The succession of airs towards the end of Part 3 is compellingly done. Iphis’s leave-taking quintet is duly valedictory in tone; yet when the final chorus sings of being “Freed from War’s destructive Sword”, it should not have to vie with drums, which contradict the verbal text (and composer).

Here, then, is a recording with some weaknesses. It retains, however, many endearing qualities which I remember affectionately from the live performance—not least the absence of frequent over-the-top ornamentation and the manner in which McGegan observes Handel’s unique sense of how to pace a drama over three hours or more. The ‘Farewell’ air, ‘Cherub and Seraphim’ chorus, and the muscular orchestral accompaniment to ‘Up the dreadful Steep’ and ‘His mighty Arm’ (to choose but two of many examples) are worth anyone’s money.

© Les Robarts - January 2004

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