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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.