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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Jephtha, oratorio in 3 parts (HWV 70)

Sophie Bevan (Iphis), Grace Davidson (Angel), soprano; Susan Bickley (Storgè), mezzo-soprano; Robin Blaze (Hamor), alto; James Gilchrist (Jephtha), tenor; Matthew Brook (Zebul), bass-baritone
The Sixteen
Dir: Harry Christophers

rec: Jan 2014, London, St Augustine's Church, Kilburn
Coro - COR16121 (3 CDs) (© 2014) (2.48'20")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Having abandoned the composition of opera altogether Handel concentrated on the genre of the oratorio in the last decade of his career as a composer. His contributions to this genre received a mixed reception. His 'secular oratorios' or 'English operas' Semele (1744), Hercules (1745) and Theodora (1750) were not positively received, but with Judas Macchabaeus (1747) and Joshua he spoke to the heart of an audience which was highly interested in subjects from the Old Testament of the Bible. Like other people they compared themselves with the Jewish people of the Old Testament, especially in a time when they were at war, for instance against the Scots in their quest for independence.

Jephtha is Handel's last oratorio and was written in a time of great distress as he was in the process of losing his eyesight. In the recent past he had already suffered several strokes from which he recovered through cures in English and German spas. He started the composition of Jephtha in January 1751 with the purpose of it being performed in the middle of the upcoming season. But whereas he usually took little time in completing a new large-scale work - for Messiah he needed just three weeks - this time things were going rather slowly, due to the problems with his eyesight. It made him break off at the end of the second act in February. Later that month he resumed work but he was unable to finish the oratorio before the opening of the season. Later that year, having again visited several spas, he was able to finish Jephtha which was performed in the 1752 season.

From a dramatic point of view the story of Jephtha, one of the Judges of the people of Israel, as told in the Old Testament book of that name, is tailor-made for a composer with dramatic skills. Before Handel the Italian composer Giacomo Carissimi, generally considered the founder of the genre, had written a much-admired oratorio on the same subject. The German theorist Athanasius Kircher expressed his great admiration for the closing chorus, "Plorate, filii Israel, plorate, omnes virgines". Carissimi left unanswered the most burning question this story raises: did Jephtha indeed literally sacrifice his daughter? In Handel's oratorio an angel intervenes, and Iphis - as Jephtha's daughter is called - is condemned to remain a virgin, totally dedicated to God.

It is sometimes suggested that this is a turn in the events which was created because in the time of Handel and his librettist Thomas Morrell the sacrifice of a human being was simply unacceptable. However, the view that Jephtha's daughter was not literally sacrificed originates from the Middle Ages and was first expressed by rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235). It is impossible to go into depth on this subject here, but there are good arguments to believe that the outcome was as it is told in Morrell's libretto, except the intervention of an angel for which there is no biblical foundation. The main arguments in favour of this interpretation are the fact that God explicitly forbade human sacrifices, that one of the greatest Jewish prophets, Samuel, mentions Jephtha as one of God's servants, and the unknown author of the Epistle to the Hebrews includes Jephtha in his 'cloud of witnesses', who through their faith performed great deeds.

The time Handel composed his oratorio was a time of change in musical taste. There was a general tendency towards more 'naturalness' which was reflected in the genre of opera by Gluck. Jephtha bears the traces of this new aesthetic ideals especially in that the arias are not very virtuosic. But there is no lack of drama here: Handel knew Carissimi's oratorio, and with different means he achieves the same amount of tension.

This recording has considerable qualities, but unfortunately dramatic tension is not one of them. The turn-around in scene 3 of Act 2, when Jephtha is greeted by his daughter Iphis and realises the consequences is rather tame. This is partly due to the lack of depth and differentiation in the orchestral part. In the accompagnatos and airs which follow this dramatic moment the orchestra is rather colourless. The best parts of this recording are the choruses. 'How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees' (Act 2) is done quite well, but 'Doubtful fear and rev'rent awe' (Act 3) is even better.

The soloists are generally good, although one has to accept that almost anyone of them uses a little too much vibrato. But fortunately the singing is not so vibrato-laden that it becomes unbearable. James Gilchrist gives a rather good account of the title role. Jephtha's emotions come off pretty well, but he is too restrained in 'Waft her, angels, through the skies'. The contrast between Storgè, his wife, and his daughter Iphis are effectively worked out. They react differently to the annoncement of Jephtha going to war (Act 1) and to Iphis' fate (Act 2 and 3). Susan Bickley is very convincing in the exposition of Storgè's rage (First perish thou, and perish all the world). Sophie Bevan is excellent as Iphis; one of her most beautiful arias is 'Farewell, ye limpid springs and floods'. Robin Blaze sings nicely, but is a bit of a lightweight; I would have liked a somewhat stronger voice and more presence in the role of Hamor. Grace Davidson is spot-on in the role of the Angel. Matthew Brook as Zebul has only one aria to sing, but is at his best in the recitatives especially thanks to his outstanding diction. It is nice that this recording in an appendix includes Zebul's aria 'Freedom now once more possessing' which Handel inserted at the beginning of the second scene from Act 2 in his 1753 revival of Jephtha.

In a nutshell, there is much to enjoy from a purely musical angle, but dramatically this performance leaves something to be desired.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Matthew Brook
Grace Davidson
James Gilchrist
The Sixteen

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