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George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Joseph and his Brethren, oratorio in three parts (1744)
Joseph - Diana Moore (mezzo-soprano), Phanor/Potiphera - Abigail Lewis (mezzo-soprano), Pharaoh/Reuben - Philip Cutlip (baritone), Asenath - Sherezade Panthaki (soprano), Simeon - Nicholas Phan (tenor), Benjamin - Gabrielle Haigh (soprano), Brother - Jonathan Smucker (tenor)
Philharmonia Baroque Chorale
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra/Nicholas McGegan
rec. 2017, Scoring Stage, Skywalker Sound, Nicasio, California
Sung in English
Libretto and texts in English

George Frederick Handel’s oratorio Joseph and his Brethren, based on Genesis chapters 38-45, is quite possibly the least performed of all the mature Handel works. It was premiered at the Covent Garden Theater just four months after the opera Semele, and by all counts was considered a success. Initially it was revived with reasonable frequency until 1778, after which performances became relatively rare. It is not hard to understand why. The libretto is a pretty messy affair: it leaves much of Joseph’s story as background plot before the stage action occurs. While the story may be somewhat lacking, there is certainly no lack of inspiration in Handel’s music. The music he composed for Joseph ranks with some of his finest in the more well known oratorios. There has only been one previous commercial recording, in 1996 on Hyperion, with the King’s College, Oxford musicians under Robert King. This new version hails from Nicholas McGegan and his California-based Philharmonia Baroque forces.

Handel was uncertain what type of voice should play the role of Joseph. Initially he had planned for a male alto to be Joseph but later he changed his mind and used a soprano instead. On the King recording, Joseph was sung by countertenor James Bowman; here we have English mezzo Diana Moore. Although they both sing splendidly, my preference leans towards Ms. Moore. She has a fine, mellow voice with a gentle reedy quality about it, reminiscent of a countertenor. Her Act 2 air “The Peasant Tastes the Sweets of Life” (CD 2, track 13) is a particularly wonderful example of her abilities.

On the King recording, the star contribution came from Yvonne Kenny as Asenath, the daughter of a High Priest. Here we have a soprano whose name I had not encountered previously, Sherezade Panthaki. Her singing is no less accomplished than Ms. Kenny’s. She has a voice with a lovely pearl-like sheen to her tone, which blossoms impressively in the upper reaches. She executes her coloratura passages with style but also manages the more reposeful airs gracefully. Her voice blends perfectly with Ms. Moore in the duet “Celestial virgin! Godlike Youth!” (CD 1, track 17). I look forward to hearing more of this singer in the near future.

Nicholas Phan is perfectly cast as Joseph’s guilt-ridden brother Simeon. He sings his music with a bright, open tone which he imbues with an appropriate sense of foreboding and self-recrimination. Another exceptional contribution comes from baritone Philip Cutlip as Pharaoh. He has an authoritative vocal presence combined with a luxurious and incisive tone. It is a pity that he does not get to sing more than his one aria. Gabrielle Haigh makes a positive impression as the youngest brother Benjamin.

Nicholas McGegan conducts his forces with a feeling of warmth combined with elegant phrasing. In the grand March of Act 1 (CD 1, track 19) the trumpets and timpani ring out splendidly in an impressive display of technical assurance. In the earlier recording, King took a similar approach to McGegan. The main difference for me is the sound engineering. In the earlier recording the microphones are placed more distantly, which gives the impression of hearing a performance in a church. On the new recording, the engineers have provided a much more intimate acoustic. It provides clarity and detail for all of the soloists and the orchestra. The chorus gains particularly because the listener can enjoy the wonderful diction of the Philharmonia Baroque Chorale. The new recording is definitely preferable in terms of the sound quality. There is an excellent accompanying booklet with a series of articles about the oratorio, and the complete libretto.

This is worth investigating for a good cast and the excellent quality of the recording of a work that should be better known and appreciated.

Mike Parr

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