George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Jephtha, Oratorio in three acts, HWV70 (1750-2, rev. 1758)
Jephtha - Markus Schäfer (tenor);
Iphis - Miriam Meyer (soprano);
Storge - Britta Schwarz (mezzo);
Hamor - Patrick van Goethem (alto);
Zebul - Gotthold Schwarz (bass);
Angel - Birte Kulawik (soprano);
Kammerchor der Frauenkirche Dresden; Dresdner Barockorchester/Matthias Grünert
rec. live, Frauenkirche, Dresden, 22-28 June 2008. DDD
Booklet contains English text and German translation.
CARUS 83.422 HYBRID SACD [3 CDs: 61:15 + 60:24 + 39:29]
Jephtha is a work of Handel’s final years; he began to work on it in 1750 and continued through 1751, with considerable delays caused by his steadily progressing blindness – he became totally blind in 1752. His librettist, Thomas Morell, adapted the Old Testament story so that the work ends happily; with echoes of Abraham and Isaac, an angel appears to forbid the sacrifice of Jephtha’s daughter.
The Carus website describes Jephtha as a ‘brilliant work’ and ‘another musical masterpiece of baroque oratorio, with its great choruses, emotionally expressive arias and gripping ensembles’ but, though there is general agreement that it contains some of his finest music, I have to admit that it hasn’t crossed my radar as much as Saul, Solomon, Judas Maccabæus and Theodora, despite the existence of a first-class recording by John Eliot Gardiner (Philips 475 6897, 9 CDs, with Saul, Solomon, etc.). The 3-CD Decca Originals reissue of this Philips recording seems no longer to be on sale in the UK, though it remains in Universal’s international catalogue; see below for its availability as a download.
The earlier Harnoncourt version is already available in a 6-CD set (2564 69611 6 with Belshazzar) and should also have been reissued alone by the time that you read this review (2564 69258 7); it received a generally warm welcome in 1980 but the Gardiner has since eclipsed it. All these rivals to the new Carus recording are at budget price – the Gardiner an incredible bargain if you don’t already own his Saul and Solomon.
There is also a slightly abridged 2-CD account in K&K’s Maulbronn Monastery series of recordings, with Emma Kirkby as Iphis (KUK60/LC11277). Robert Hugill thought this adequate, but missing the work’s essential genius, and recommended paying the extra for the Gardiner – see review. I had a similar reaction to the Maulbronn version of Joshua – see review – which I could have recommended more strongly had it not been for the very strong competition from the King’s Consort (Hyperion). The Brilliant Classics set of Jephtha seems no longer to be available.
Can this new Carus version, performed by what their publicity describes as a ‘stellar ensemble’, succeed in convincing me that this really is a masterpiece and that I have been missing something of considerable value in not getting to know it?
The Overture opens slightly ponderously; though it soon livens up, it never quite springs fully to life, but the ensuing Minuet (track 2) is sprightly and elegant. Gotthold Schwarz’s Zebul opens the vocal proceedings (tr.3) and immediately highlights a problem which affects the whole performance. Despite the qualities of his singing, I had to focus very closely on the libretto to reveal what he sings – without concentrating hard, one could easily think that he was singing in German. His air Pour forth no more unheeded prayers (tr.4) goes well enough but continuing problems of diction mean that he doesn’t inject enough scorn into the words ‘idols deaf and vain’. It isn’t so much that he cannot pronounce the words as that his diction is unclear and hesitant in what is not his first language – I feel sure that, had he been singing in German, he would have been much more emphatic.
Without a single Anglophone in the cast – or, presumably, in the chorus – this is a serious shortcoming for an English-speaking audience. Paradoxically, the words of the chorus in No more Ammon’s god and king (tr.5) are actually rather clearer than Zebul’s. I enjoyed the lively account of this chorus and the excellent balance between singers and orchestra – a tribute to both the performers and the engineers who recorded this series of live performances.
Markus Schäfer’s Jephtha suffers from much the same problems as Zebul – again, his pronunciation is pretty accurate, but his diction hesitant. In the air Virtue my soul shall embrace (tr.7) he throws caution to the winds with enjoyable results: he also manages to make Jephtha not sound too pompous here – it’s all too easy for the Old Testament heroes to sound insufferable to modern ears. Even to Handel’s contemporaries, of course, his vow would have seemed unreasonable in the extreme – the librettist actually gives him a slight let-out clause in making him swear that whatever he first sees after his victory “shall be forever thine, or fall a sacrifice” (my italics). Schäfer plays the accompagnato vow (tr.17) straight, which is probably the best way to deal with it.
Britta Schwarz’s Storge, too, is less than ideal in her recitative but, though the diction problems persist in her aria In gentle murmurs (tr.9) her singing and the delicacy of the accompaniment more than compensate.
The music in the first act is pretty routine for the most part, but Storge’s aria represents a high point. I’m not keen on CDs of disconnected arias but this aria and performance would make good candidates for inclusion in an anthology.
Patrick van Goethem as Hamor, too, sings well, though his diction again leaves something to be desired, especially in recitative; in his air Dull delay (tr.11), as with the other singers, the problem is much less noticeable. Hamor is destined to be disappointed – even when the angel saves his beloved Iphis, she is doomed to remain a holy virgin – so it’s appropriate that his aria should sound a little droopy.
Miriam Meyer (Iphis) is much more sensitive than the other soloists to the natural flow of English, even in recitative. Her airs in the first act, Take the heart you fondly gave (tr.13) and The smiling dawn of happy days (tr.23) are not exactly among the highlights of the opera – though Handel had some attractive words to set in the latter, he didn’t make the most of them – but she makes a good case for both. Between my first run-through of this set and my detailed analysis I’d been listening to the marvellous Glossa series of Handel’s Italian Cantatas (GCD921521, 921522, 921523 and 921524, all available separately and as downloads from classicsonline) and half expected Meyer to suffer by comparison with sopranos Roberta Invernizzi, Emanuela Gali and Raffaela Milanesi on those recordings. Such, however, was not the case – she holds her own in the air and again in the duet These labours past (tr.15) where she and van Goethem make a well-matched pair.
Act 2 (CD2) opens with Hamor acting as the classical nuntius to announce the victory which, of course, we have not seen. His recitative leads into the lively chorus Cherub and Seraphim (tr.2) which receives an appropriate performance. As before, van Goethem in Hamor’s aria Up the dreadful steep (tr.3) is more impressive, with fewer problems of diction, than in the opening recitative, though his pronunciation of other as if the first vowel were a -u- jars somewhat. Once again, too, Meyer’s diction is much more idiomatic, though both in her recitative (tr.4) and the aria Tune the soft melodic lute (tr.5) she tends slightly to umlaut the -a- in banners and rapturous.
For the remainder of Act 2 and Act 3, the same considerations generally hold. My feeling at the end, despite a rousing version of the final chorus, was of a satisfactory performance, with everything in place, rather than a satisfying or definitive account.
For a really satisfying and definitive account, then, you need to turn to Gardiner’s 9-disc set or, if you already have, or don’t wish to have, his Israel in Egypt, Solomon and Saul, download the single work on 422 351 2 from passionato.com in very acceptable 320kbps mp3 sound. This download is keenly priced, too, at £15.99 for 3 CDs when it costs £24.99 from Universal’s own download site.
From the Overture to Act 1 Gardiner’s performance has an edge, sometimes hard to define, over Grünert’s. My impression that the new version of this is too sluggish is immediately confirmed by hearing Gardiner; not only is his account lither, he also gives a little subtle lift to the rhythm here and there. Where the minuet alone sounds sprightly and elegant on Carus, that description describes the whole track on the older recording.
Throughout the oratorio Gardiner is just that little perkier than Grünert, though the actual timings are very similar: Gardiner takes 58:52 for Act 1, Grünert 61:15, and the difference is almost wholly due to Gardiner’s faster Overture. The differences are slightly more marked in Act 2, where Gardiner is marginally more dramatic (57:27 against 60:25). In Act 3 the joy of Iphis’s reprieve is better caught on the Philips recording, despite a slightly slower timing overall (42:01 against 39:39). That final chorus to which I have referred, for example, sounds well enough at Grünert’s pace but Gardiner shaves a vital few seconds off to make it sound better still.
It isn’t just that Gardiner employs original instruments – the picture of the valveless horns in the Carus package shows that Grünert does, too. Nor is it that there is anything much wrong with the quality of the singing from the Carus soloists; Gardiner’s soloists are all native English speakers, with the exception of Anne Sofie von Otter and her pronunciation here leaves her Carus equivalent well behind. Paradoxically, the clarity of the Carus recording – if anything, it’s clearer than the Gardiner, at least in its mp3 format – shows up the defects in the soloists’ pronunciation. The SACD layer can only make this problem even more obvious.
You don’t, of course, get the notes and libretto with the download – and the Carus presentation is quite lavish – but texts and summaries are available online; and because the superior diction makes the words more audible than on the new Carus, you won’t need to keep rushing to the libretto. You’ll need it, for example, for Schäfer’s beautifully sung version of Jephtha’s Waft her, angels (CD3, tr.2) but not for Nigel Robson’s even more beautiful rendition – and you’ll also have a better feeling that this is music that is ‘going’ somewhere, even though Gardiner’s tempo is slightly slower here than Grünert’s.
Nor is it merely that Philips recorded Gardiner’s team live, though that seems to have added to the chemistry; the Carus is also a live performance. Both audiences, incidentally, are mercifully quiet, but I like the applause on CD3 of both sets – separately tracked on the Gardiner set. At the end of the Gardiner performance I felt that I had experienced a really enjoyable presentation and one which made me think that I had, after all, underrated Jephtha.
A satisfactory performance but outshone by Gardiner’s earlier version ... see Full Review