Handel Jephtha

Author: 
Stanley Sadie

HANDEL Jephtha

  • Jephtha

This newest recording in John Ehot Gardiner's Handel series, made live at Gottingen Festival last year, tackles the last and to my mind one of the very greatest of the oratorios. Jephtha has the same basic story as several eastern Mediterranian myths familiar to the opera-goer (in Idomeneo and Iphigenie en Aulide, for example), of the father compelled to sacrifice his child. Whether, as Winton Dean argues in his monumental study, Handel's Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (London; 1959), it is a matter of a Christian interpretation of the harsh Old Testament tale, or whether it is simply a matter of the habitual demand of the eighteenth century's philosophy for a (relatively) happy ending, Jephtha's daughter Iphis is not in the event sacrificed: when Abraham-like, her father has shown himself willing to perform God's will, and she has shown herself ready to accept it, an angel happily intervenes and commutes her sentence to perpetual virginity. But not before the tragic situation has provoked some of the noblest music Handel wrote. From the moment that Jephtha sees that it is his daughter who has to fall victim to his improvident oath, the music, hitherto on a good but not outstanding level, acquires a new depth, above all in the sequence at the end of Act 2, beginning with the noble quartet (where Jephtha resolves that despite others' pleas his vow must stand) to the great chorus, ''How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees'', and then again in Act 3, from Jephtha's ''Waft her, angels'' through Iphis's moving Farewell to the point of the angel's arrival.
This recording does the work full justice. It could scarcely have been better cast. The role of Jephtha is a difficult one demanding both heroic qualities and depth of lyrical expression. Nigel Robson seems to me ideal. He has due weight as well as vigour, style as well as expressive force. He swaggers in the big military arias, declaims ''Deeper and deeper still'' with much feeling, and if ''Waft her, angels'' might have been more beautifully sung this is nevertheless an uncommonly moving performance. Lynne Dawson's Iphis is also a real success. Sometimes this role is done in a girlishly 'innocent' vein, she does more than that establishing the character in the appealing love duet in Part 1 (but what a terrible cadenza here!), singing her celebratory gavotte song with great charm, then steadfast and noble in her lamentation music after the quartet and, in the lovely E major music of her final aria, achieving a real visionary quality as Iphis accepts her destiny. Her firm, well focused, unaffected singing is just right for this role.
The other outstanding contribution comes from Michael Chance as Hamor, her unfortunate betrothed. His first song, ''Dull delay'', is beautifully measured and delicately shaped, and indeed all his singing is impeccably musicianly attentive to the words too: his declamation of the recitative is a model. His Act 3 aria is done with tremendous fire. And his duetting with Iphis is charming, in the cooing of the very galant Act 1 piece and in the lovers' resignation at the end, though I have to say that the quickish tempo here does make them seem just a shade too eager to resign their mutual amorous interests. Stephen Varcoe sings Zebul's music with due resonance and spirit, and Anne Sofie von Otter makes a distinguished contribution in Storge's music: ''Scenes of horror'' has a splendid attack and depth of tone, and ''Let other creatures die!'' is spat out with rare power. Ruth Holton makes a pleasantly warm and mellifluous angel.
The Monteverdi Choir are in fine voice: vigorous in attack, precise in ensemble, firm in tone at all dynamic levels, responsive to all that Gardiner asks of them. Listen to their sterling singing of ''O God, behold our sore distress'', for example, or the stark and powerful ending to ''how dark''—to the words from Pope, ''whatever is, is right'': sung like this, it is not just a performance but the exposition of a philosophy. Gardiner 'overdots', I think rightly, the first part of that chorus, imparting to it a high degree of rhythmic tension. Here and there one might cavil at some of the dynamic shaping in the choruses, for example in ''Doubtful fear'' in Act 3; and I thought the Overture a trifle fussy in detail. But the broad vision of the work the rhythmic energy that runs through it and the sheer excellence of the choral and orchestral contributions (listen to the EBS violins imitating the flapping wings of the cherubim and seraphim at the start of Act 2!) speak for themselves. One or two of the recitative cadences do not seem to me quite rightly timed: there is a little ornamentation, virtually all of it well judged. Cuts are very few, and amply justified by authentic precedent. This recording is to my mind superior in every plane to the Harnoncourt on Teldec/ASV listed above and can be firmly recommended as long likely to be the standard version of this great work.'

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