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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Carl REINTHALER (1822–1896) Jephta und seine Tochter
Jephta – Richard Salter (bass)
Mirjam – Sabine Riggerbusch (soprano)
A Maiden - Waltraud Hoffmann-Mucher (alto)
Ephraim – Jurgen Sacher (tenor)
A Maiden – Konstanze Maxsein (soprano)
Prophet – Oliver Zwarg (bass)
Bremer Domchor
Kammer Sinfonie Bremen/Wolfgang Helbich
Recorded St. Petri Dom Bremen, 25-28 March 1997
CPO 999 938-2 [60.47 + 63.35]

The Jephta und seine Tochter is one of those pieces with which to confound your friends; when listened to with an innocent ear its echoes of Brahms and Mendelssohn make you wonder whether it is something by them which you have overlooked. In fact Reinthaler studied music in Berlin with Adolf Bernhard Marx who imbued him with a love of Handel, Beethoven and Wagner. Reinthaler travelled to Rome, courtesy of the King of Prussia, to studied old sacred music at its source and it was here that he began to sketch his oratorio about Jephta. The success of the oratorio led to his appointment as City Music Director in Bremen and it has now been enterprisingly recorded by forces from Bremen.

When constructing his libretto, Reinthaler used the oratorios of Mendelssohn as his model and throughout the piece the influence of Elijah is never far away. Reinthaler assembled his own libretto. He had originally studied theology before going on to study music full time. It tells the familiar story of Jephta’s being chosen as the Israelites’ leader, his vow to God to sacrifice the first person he sees on returning home if only the Lord would grant him victory, his fateful meeting with his daughter on returning home and her plea that she might play with her friends one last time. Like Handel in his oratorio, Reinthaler alters the biblical ending and an unnamed prophet prevents Jephta from killing his daughter.

The work was written just a few years after Mendelssohn’s death and the parallels with Elijah become more and more striking as you listen. The sound-world of Elijah never seems far away. Reinthaler uses his chorus to striking effect, writing many effective numbers for singer and double chorus as well as using solo numbers with choral backing, a device beloved of Mendelssohn. The comparison extends of course to the title role, where Jephta is another dynamic Old Testament character. Reinthaler characterises him with much of the same vigour as Mendelssohn does Elijah, both composers use a bass voice. In fact Reinthaler’s Jephta is far closer to Mendelssohn’s Elijah than he is to Handel’s version of the character.

The second part of the oratorio opens with a consolatory aria for soprano solo which evokes such Mendelssohnian numbers as ‘O Rest in the Lord’. There is even a vocal quartet and a trio of female voices, two devices used by Mendelssohn. Reinthaler neatly and effectively balances the scene containing the female trio and the women’s chorus, with a parallel scene for the tenor soloists and male chorus. Reinthaler sits comfortably within this Mendelssohnian tradition, creating a fine new fabric from the master’s cloth. The piece is well constructed and Reinthaler has a good ear for orchestral and vocal timbres, you never feel him straining to write something beyond his ability.

Where he shows some dramatic weakness is in the crucial scene when Jephta acknowledges his vow to his daughter. This is a situation which has no analogy within Elijah. Whereas you feel that Mendelssohn would have created a remarkable dramatic moment, Reinthaler is content to rely on dramatic recitative. This is his weakness. He is content to exist within his world and does not innovate. His melodic invention is also apt to let him down, he writes effectively but his melodies are never quite as memorable as they should be.

After Reinthaler’s death, the piece was not performed again until 1979 when it was revived in Bremen Cathedral, where there have been a number of performances since. This recording, by Bremen Cathedral Choir, arose after performances in 1997.

Reinthaler uses the choir boldly and extensively; this is a big choral piece. Bremen Cathedral Choir sings with subtlety and vigour, though they cannot disguise the occasional moments when they sound a little too small for the music. Though hard working they can lack the necessary amplitude of sound. No matter how significant the vocal soloists, this is a work which stands or falls by its choral contribution and Bremen Cathedral Choir does rise to the challenge.

As the protagonist, English baritone Richard Salter has a firm grasp of the drama required of him and projects Reinthaler’s vigorous drama well. Unfortunately, to my ears, his voice sounds a little too baritone and lacks the sort of bass darkness which I think the role seems to require. There are moments when his voice, though dominating proceedings easily, could have done with more heft to make him a believable Old Testament general. As his daughter Miriam, soprano Sabine Ritterbusch has a clear but rich voice, reminiscent a little of Heather Harper. She copes well with the sometimes high tessitura of the role, though her voice is apt to go steely at the top. She projects well the rather consolatory nature which Reinthaler gives Miriam and she shapes her music well.

Neither Ritterbusch nor Salter quite manage to make Reinthaler’s dramatic recitative come alive in Jephta’s confrontation with his daughter. But without listening to other performances, I am not sure whether the fault is the composer’s or theirs; they certainly try to project the drama with conviction. Waltraud Hoffman-Mucher has a light and attractive voice and shapes her one aria well. Tenor Jurgen Sacher has an important, quasi-narrator role and he fulfils this well. His voice is apt to be tight at the top and it could be freer.

Both chorus and soloists are well supported by Kammer Sinfonie Bremen under Wolfgang Helbich. The work lacks an overture. Reinthaler provides a simple, rather Brahmsian prelude, but the orchestra acquits itself with honour in the larger scale numbers.

If these artists were recording Elijah then the recording would be creditable but would not leap to the fore in a crowded market. But they more than make a case for the viability of Reinthaler’s work, singing with commitment, subtlety and enthusiasm and I enjoyed the performance immensely.

Robert Hugill



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