Saturday 22 November 2014

Handel Jephtha

Handel Jephtha - Coro - The Sixteen
Handel Jephtha; Gilchrist, Bickley, Bevan, Blaze, Brook, the Sixteen, Christophers; Coro
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 20 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Vividly text based new recording showcasing some fine solo performances

This new recording of Handel's final oratorio Jephtha comes from Harry Christophers and the Sixteen on their Coro label. Recorded after live performances (see my review of their Barbican performance), the disc features one of the strongest English-speaking casts possible to assemble with James Gilchrist in the title role with Susan Bickley, Sophie Bevan, Robin Blaze and Matthew Brook.

The choice of recommendable recordings of Jephtha on disc is not hugely wide. Two of the finest are now getting a bit long in the tooth, the recordings by John Eliot Gardiner and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. There has not been a rush to add to the list, though James Gilchrist recorded the role for BIS in 2011 with Fabio Biondi and the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. This new disc provides a highly recommendable alternative, straightforward and direct and giving a fine showcase for the performances by Gilchrist in the title role.

James Gilchrist as Jephtha in Frederic Wake-Walker's staging at the 2012 Buxton Festival
James Gilchrist as Jephtha in
Frederic Wake-Walker's staging at the 2012 Buxton Festival
In addition to The Sixteen's 2013 concert performance of the work, I also saw James Gilchrist in Buxton Festival's 2012 staged account of the work and can testify to quite how intense and powerful his performance in the title role is. Susan Bickley was also in the Buxton performances, as well as singing the role for the London Handel Festival. She is one of the finest exponents of the role of Storge today and makes a strong pair with Gilchrist.

Jephtha was effectively Handel's last oratorio, he was 66 when it was first performed and he had had to suspend work on it because of illness. Simply completing the work seems to have been something of a struggle. It is easy to romanticise (and we know still very little about Handel personally) but you cannot help feel that the composer identified in some way. Working with the Revd Thomas Morrell as librettist, Handel had found a way in his final works to make his own musical statement, sometimes using musical means to subvert Morrell's moral message. Morrell's texts might not be the greatest that Handel set, but they served a purpose. And for all his prosy moralising, Morrell was a good classicist and his version of the story is stronger for the echoes of Greek myth that he brings into it.

Christophers favours a rather less theatrical feel than some. That is not to say that the performance is not dramatic, but this is very definitely a dramatic oratorio rather than an opera in disguise. Some people may be disappointed that the soloists are not encouraged to wring the last drop out of their performances, but the results are vividly involving and highly musical.

More than the music, it is the text which is at the fore. You never need the libretto and the performance from soloists and choir very clearly takes account of the fact that to the orginal audience, the text was extremely important. Handel's oratorios demonstrated a moral message. In the CD booklet Ruth Smith's wonderfully iluminating note makes it clear that Thomas Morrell's text gave the audience a clear pointer that Jephtha's main sin was in not turning to God sooner after making the vow. She traces a clear moral story in the dilemma which would have been clear to the first audience. Add to the fact that the English often identified themselves with the Israelites as God's chosen people, and you have a very potent mix. This recording brings this out, with everyone taking a text based approach, but it is also well sung.

The title role of Jephtha was the last major role that Handel wrote for the great tenor, John Beard. Handel had written the title role of Samson for Beard, but there was something of an interregnum when Beard did not sing for Handel (Theodora and Solomon have no major dramatic roles for tenor - see my review of Neil Jenkins' biography of the tenor for further background). Whilst Beard obviously did have a big dramatic voice, this can sometimes be overstated and it has to be remembered that he sang the tenor solos in Messiah and L'Allegro too. So anyone singing the role today needs to be able to combine requisite power with the right degree of sensibility and finesse. 

Gilchrist makes a powerful Jephtha. Admirably he never feels the need to distort the vocal line for dramatic effect, but combines musicality with a profound sense of drama. The great moments are all not only strong technically with a nice control of the Handelian idiom, but they are profoundly moving. If they don't dig quite as deep as his stage performances, they come pretty close. He is vividly intense from the first moment, his passagework nicely even and there is a very great sense of the religious rapture which Gilchrist imbues his character of Jephtha. Gilchrist does indeed combine the right degrees of power and finesse in his performance, but more than that he gives a wonderfully clear projection of the character's personal drama.

Susan Bickley is similarly strong as  Jephtha's wife Storge. She starts off moving and dignified, but with a strong sense of character which develops when Storge starts having awful anticipations of the drama to come. Her accompagnato First perish thou, and perish all the world! after Jephtha has revealed the results of his vow, is one of the most memorable moments on the disc. Like Gilchrist, Bickley has a way of combining character and musicality, so that her performance is both musical and a superb character study.

Sophie Bevan brings a real sense of joy Jephtha's daughter Iphis's act one arias, which only goes to render even more poignant her touching sense of duty and pain in the later arias after her father's vow is revealed. The role is a tricky one and a trifle under written, so it was with real pleasure that I listened to the way Bevan created the character before us and made us really care.

Iphis's fiance Hamor is perhaps the most unnecessary character in the plot. Hamor needs to exist to give us a sense of what Iphis is giving up when she becomes a nun. But Hamor has no real use in the mechanics of the plot. It is to Robin Blaze's great credit that he makes us want to listen to Hamor, singing with a great sense of involvement. In a strong cast, Matthew Brook's Zebul certainly holds his own bringing vigour and style to his arias. He also gets to perform the aria Handel added for Zebul in the 1753 revival of the work. Grace Davidson makes a lovely Angel in act three.

Of course, Jephtha is as much about the choir as the solos. Handel gives the choir some very fine extended choruses. How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees which closes act two, lasts over seven minutes. The Sixteen is on strong form, giving us some superbly sung moments. The have a nice clarity of line and a strong feel for the text, but there is also power too with is a real sense of purpose behind the larger scale serious numbers.

Harry Christophers gives us a very straightforward direct account of the score. As I have said, he does not push it too far in the direction of opera, but is content to balance the drama with the extended contemplative sections. I know of people who dislike his clean approach, but personally I welcome it and can imagine listening to the disc rather a lot. The continuo group includes not just a harpsichord, but theorbo and harp with might be a little too colourful for some, but we do not get any overdone excesses thank goodness.

The CD booklet contains an extensive and illuminating article by Ruth Smith plus full text.

Handel's Jephta is a truly remarkable score and no one recording can illuminate all aspects of it but this new recording showcases some strong soloists in an admirably direct, text-based approach.

George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Jephtha (1752) [167.28]
Jephtha - James Gilchrist (tenor)
Storge - Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)
Iphis - Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Hamor - Robin Blaze (counter-tenor)
Zebul - Matthew Brook (bass)
Angel - Grace Davidson (soprano)
The Sixteen
Harry Christophers (conductor)
Recorded January 2014, at St Augusstine's Church, Kilburn, London
CORO 16121 3CD's [58.54, 57.25, 52.19]
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