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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Jephtha (1751) [151.16]
Iphis – Emma Kirkby (soprano)
Storge, Angel – Melinda Paulsen (mezzo)
Hamor – Charles Humphries (counter-tenor)
Jephtha – Julian Podger (tenor)
Zebul – Stephen Varcoe (bass)
Maulbronner Kammerchor
Barockorchester der Kosterkonzerte/Jurgen Budday
rec. 26-27 September 1998, Maulbronn Monastery. DDD
K&K VERLAGSANSTALT KuK LC 11277 [73.54 + 77.22]

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The series of Handel oratorio recordings from Maulbronn Monastery offers a rather mixed experience. Casts tend to be variable, with a significant number of English singers, and they are recorded live, with all the limitations that entails. The oratorios are cut to fit onto two well-filled CDs.

This 1998 release of Jephtha is no different. Sadly the cuts include Storge’s important aria ‘Scenes of Horror’; this is all the more regrettable as Storge is strongly sung by Melinda Paulsen. Being live means that the singing and playing of chorus and orchestra are subject to occasional slips and faults of ensemble. And whilst you might hope that this might be balanced by the vividness and vitality of a live performance, this one is not quite as vivid as one might hope.

Perhaps the subject matter of the piece has weighed down a little too much on them. Handel’s penultimate oratorio deals with serious matters, the core of the piece being Jephtha’s acceptance of the consequences of his vow. This aspect of the work could be characterised by the chorus ‘Whatever is, is right’. But Thomas Morrell, for all his faults, gave Handel a pretty balanced libretto and Handel was a strong dramatist. In his late works to Morrell librettos, he manages to rise above the occasional banalities and infelicities to create sublime music. But he also varied the mix.

A significant aspect of this is the music for the young lovers Hamor (Charles Humphries) and Iphis (Emma Kirkby). This is important as a contrast, so that we come to appreciate what Iphis is giving up when she is sacrificed. In fact this is Hamor’s principal function, which makes the role a tricky one to bring off. Humphries is in mellifluous voice but never quite convinces as the ardent lover. He and Kirkby are not really helped by the rather steady direction from Jurgen Budday. Throughout much of the first Act I longed for them to forget that the subject matter of the oratorio was serious and concentrate on the needs of the drama.

As Iphis, Kirkby is no longer in quite as pristine voice as she once was, her forays above the stave lack the freedom of her earlier recordings. But her tone is still wonderfully girlish, ideal for the young Iphis, and to this she adds the depth and maturity of a seasoned performer. Kirkby does try to lighten her mood and point up musical and verbal felicities in the first Act; her performance is one of the prime reasons for buying this set. It is a shame then that two of her arias, including her final one, are cut. But a single performer does not make for a good oratorio performance; the whole cast must be balanced.

As her mother, Storge, Melinda Paulsen proves dramatic and vivid. She turns in a very strong performance, one which gives full measure to the drama in the later acts when Storge learns she will lose her daughter. In her recitative and aria (‘Let other creatures die’), which comes directly after Jephtha’s ‘Open thy marble jaws, O tomb’, she is so strongly dramatic that she puts Podger’s Jephtha in the shade. Jephtha has just learned the consequence of his vow and his reaction should be as dramatic as Storge’s. 

Podger is not strictly a weak link in this performance. He is a fine musical singer and delivers a well phrased and beautifully rounded performance. Unfortunately he simply lacks the moral authority for the role. He is adequate when called upon to be heroic, but simply lacks the resources to conjure up the grief and despair needed for the later scenes. His account of ‘Waft her angels’ is finely constructed and sung, but lacks real feeling of the dark emotions lying beneath the music. 

Stephen Varcoe brings sensitivity and gravitas to the role of Zebul, Jephtha’s brother. His contribution adds a welcome depth to the performance and does something to anchor it, which Podger’s Jephtha fails to do.

The Maulbronner Kammerchor sing well, granted my cavils about the live recording, but fail to make enough of the words. The more sombre choruses are simply not stark or dramatic enough.

The Barockorchester der Klosterkonzerte play well for Jurgen Budday. They contribute a neatly played overture and some crisp, lively accompaniments. If Budday’s account of the work had been a little less steady, perhaps they would have contributed even more arresting playing.

If you are curious about Handel’s Jephtha this performance is adequate, but you risk missing the work’s essential genius, far better to save up and buy John Eliot Gardiner’s classic account. But if you are an admirer of Emma Kirkby’s, then you might care to have this on your shelves.

Robert Hugill 


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