Aureole etc.

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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
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Brilliant Classics

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Jephtha - oratorio in three acts HWV 790
Jephtha - John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Zebul - Michael George (bass)
Storge - Catherine Denley (mezzo-soprano)
Iphis - Christiane Oelze (soprano)
Hamor - Axel Köhler (counter-tenor)
Angel - Julia Gooding
RIA Kammerchor
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Marcus Creed
Recorded 1994
Brilliant Classics Handel Edition: Volumes 1 to 3
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99777-1/3 [3CDs: 61.54, 56.25, 41.48]

'Jephtha' was Handel's last major work. At one point he had to suspend work on it due to problems with his eyes, eventually losing the sight in one eye altogether. By the following year he was too blind to work properly and 'Jephtha' was followed only by the 'Triumph of Truth and Time', an adaptation by Handel and his amanuensis, Smith, of a work from Handel's Italian period.

The libretto to 'Jephtha' was written by the Rev. Thomas Morrell, who also wrote 'Theodora' for Handel. It is based on the story from Judges where Jephtha. commanding the Israeli army, vows to God that if he gets a victory he will offer the first living thing he meets as a sacrifice to God. After his victory, the first thing he meets is his daughter. Morrell developed a pretty serviceable libretto from this story. Creating the role of Storge, Jephtha's wife, so that she is the only person to have doubts about Jephtha's vow. Jephtha's daughter, Iphis, acquires a boyfriend and their devotion forms a counterpoint to Jephtha's vow, rendering it all the more poignant. The major change that Morrell made was to the ending. In the biblical version, Iphis is given a few months grace and then she is sacrificed. This was too much for the 18th century enlightenment, who preferred the New Testament God. So Iphis is spared at the last minute by an Angel, though she must spend the rest of her life in a convent. Much ink has been spilt, denigrating Morrell for this change. But, as his correspondence with Charles Jennens (librettist for 'Messiah', 'Belshazzar' and 'Saul') shows, Handel was perfectly capable directing a librettist. We must assume that Handel was reasonably content with the altered ending. Perhaps because the ending was not the key to his dramatic conception of 'Jephtha' and we must look at Handel’s private circumstances at the time of composition if we wish to understand how Handel viewed ‘Jephtha’.

The score was begun just before his 66th birthday - a considerable age in the 18th century and few composers were still actively working at this age (Bach had died the year before). With his sight failing he must have known that he had only a limited time left to put pen to paper. So not surprisingly, Handel does not develop 'Jephtha' in the way that might have been expected given Morrell's libretto. The crux of Handel's oratorio is submission to the inevitable. From the bold setting of the opening recitative 'It must be so' to the closing chorus of Act 2 with its words (altered by Handel from Morrell's original) 'Whatever is, is right'.

Despite its power, 'Jephtha' is still not common in the catalogues so these Berlin-based performances are more than welcome. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin under Marcus Creed, give a crisp stylish account of the overture which typifies their approach to the whole work. Speeds are, on the whole, quite brisk but some of the faster passages in the overture sound a little rushed.

Michael George, as Zebul, is fine Handelian singer and his Zebul is a noble performance. It is therefore a shame to have to say that his voice does sound a little frayed at the edges but it is used with such style that he creates a credible rough diamond of a leader.

Catherine Denly's Storge is capable and firm of voice. So it is all the more moving when she gives way to her fears in the great Act 1 aria and in Act 2 she is wonderfully virulent in her reaction to Jephtha's vow.

As Iphis, Christiane Oelze sings with strength and purity. Good women in oratorios can often seem a little flat and colourless but Oelze sings with such colour and vibrancy that suggest hidden depths and strengths in Iphis. She reacts with poise and strength to the news of Jephtha's vow.

The role of Hamar is a tricky role as he is there mainly to render Iphis's fate all the more poignant. I am afraid that I do not think that Axel Köhler fills the role adequately. Technically he has no problem with Handel's writing, but his voice is not always lovely to listen to, it develops something of a hoot and there are occasional suggestions that the tessitura might be a little to high. His performance of Hamar's Act II aria is distinctly untidy. Then there is the issue of language. Unlike Christiane Oelze, whose grasp of English is beautifully idiomatic, Köhler noticeably makes you feel that he is singing in a foreign language.

During Act 1, John Mark Ainsley as Jephtha is every inch the noble commander. His fluency in the passage work is enviable and his way of using the Handelian line to create character is lovely. He does, though, sound a little young. This is fine. After all, it makes Jephtha sound impulsive, but does mean that Storge sounds significantly older than him. In Act 2, when Jephtha digests the consequences of his vow, Ainsley's very fluency counts against him and the role seems to lack an element of struggle. But when we reach Act 3, 'Waft her Angels' receives a heartbreaking performance.

The RIAS Chamber Choir have a prominent role in the performance as Handel allots the chorus some important moments of comment on the proceedings. They sing with a clear, focused tone and in the bigger choruses, such as that which closes Act 1 'When his loud voice in thunder spoke', they sound admirably full whilst never coming over as overblown or oversized. In the smaller choruses, such as the women's chorus at the beginning of Act 2, they provide a gently intimate tone. Their performance would be ideal were it not for the fact that they fail to make enough of the words. This is not a fault of their accent, they are after all singing in a foreign language but it rarely sounds as such. In oratorio words are, unfortunately, very important - there is no stage action. It may be that the fault is not entirely with the choir but also with the recording engineers. But the result is an occluded delivery which weakens a fine performance.

The pre-eminent recording of 'Jephtha' remains John Eliot Gardiner's 1988 recording with Nigel Robson, Ann Sofie von Otter, Michael Chance and Lynne Dawson. Unlike Creed who as a conductor seems to be content to just let things happen, Gardiner is an interventionist conductor, far more responsive to the needs of the drama. Though Creed's soloists (except for Axel Köhler) are generally on a par with Gardiner's. Gardiner's dramatic reading of the work helps his soloists give far more dramatically intense readings. It helps that Nigel Robson in the title role has a voice which can be steely and heroic and he uses this to great effect. Just comparing Jephtha's recitative 'Open thy marble jaws, o Tomb' is instructive. Ainsley's performance is finely sung but Robson's is moving and dramatically credible. But Creed's recording was made nearly 10 years ago in 1994 and I am sure that John Mark Ainsley will wish to re-record the role after his performance has deepened with experience.

Any Handelian will wish to have John Eliot Gardiner's recording, if they haven't got it already. But this new recording, at super budget price, allows us to appreciate a new team of soloists. And for those who do not know this moving work, this new recording is a good place to start exploring.

Robert Hugill




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