Handel Joseph and his Brethren

Author: 
Stanley Sadie

Handel Joseph and his Brethren

  • Joseph and his Brethren

No one would claim a specially high place among Handel’s oratorios for Joseph and his Brethren, but the neglect it has suffered is grotesquely out of proportion to the merits of its music. You will find only a single aria listed on the current Gramophone Database; years ago there was also a recording of the overture. As far as I know, there has never been a complete, professional recording. Do not be misled: it is full of good and characteristic things, and there are several scenes, including the extended denouement in the last act, that are very moving. The libretto, by the Revd James Miller (partly a translation of one by Zeno, after an earlier French play), is admittedly marred not only by a problematical plot on which he could not impose a satisfactory structure but also by his tendency to lapse into a sententious style. It also carries implications to do with contemporary politics which will of course be lost on the vast majority of modern listeners.
The work begins splendidly, with an unusual overture – it starts like an Italian trio sonata rather than a French overture, lyrical rather than ceremonious to catch the sense of the work to follow, sombrely cast in E minor: there are two slowish movements, then a sturdy fugue and a brief and formal minuet. It heralds a fine and deeply felt opening scene for Joseph, languishing in an Egyptian prison. The setting of his prophecy is effective, with seven bars of darting arpeggios for the years of plenty and seven of sparse harmonic writing, adagio, for the famine years (oddly, Handel wrote another version without the symbolism; the colourful one is used here). The rest of Act 1 is celebration of Joseph’s foresight, preferment and marriage to Asenath, Pharoah’s daughter (whom Miller and Handel, following another version of the tale, take to be a priestess, or, as Joseph says, a “celestial virgin”). There is no scope for drama here but the music for the soloists is appealing and charming and there is a quite original fugal celebratory chorus followed by a very brilliant aria for Pharoah, all trumpet and rushing violins, which turns effectively into another chorus.
The highlights of Act 2 include a prison scene for Simeon, an agonized G minor accompanied recitative and aria (the compound of anger and guilt is tellingly reflected in the music), a beautiful, nostalgic pastoral idyll for Joseph, and scenes for Joseph with his brothers which incorporate a splendid outburst from Simeon – a group of recitatives with soft string support (and with some amazing expressive modulations), an aria from Benjamin and a moving chorus from the brothers, a sustained prayer and a richly worked fugue. One thread in Miller’s libretto, taking a hint from his earlier source and reinterpreting it, calls on mid-eighteenth-century notions of ‘sensibility’ apropos family relationships, and the central scene here, where Joseph threatens to imprison Benjamin, is to my mind remarkable and very affecting in this vein, which is unusual for Handel: there are again recitatives with string support, a brief duet and a prayer chorus, followed by an aria for Simeon. Then all is well: a love duet and a conventional celebratory ‘anthem’ of the sort that Handel could use to round off almost any religious work, bring Joseph to an end.
I have not much mentioned the music for the women, mainly because it has little place in the central drama and is not particularly out of the ordinary, that for the attendant Phanor especially. However, Phanor is very surely and attractively sung by Catherine Denley. Asenath, of whose role Handel’s friend Mrs Delany justly said “will not admit of much variety”, is at her most interesting in the Act 2 aria about her children, “Together, lovely innocents”, motivated by Joseph’s understandable anxieties about family life, and her charming final aria, in a rather English ‘rural’ vein, “What’s sweeter than the new-blown rose?”; but her main virtuoso piece, “Prophetic raptures”, is certainly brilliant and arresting. Yvonne Kenny dispatches all this music with great spirit and accuracy, in a bright, forward, well-focused tone, and with particular intensity in the Act 2 aria, “The silver stream”; sometimes I wished that the words were more clearly projected. Joseph’s brothers are outstandingly done: a delightful Benjamin from the treble Connor Burrowes and eloquent and passionate singing from John Mark Ainsley as both Simeon and Judah, while Reuben’s small part is taken by Michael George, who also sings Pharoah, and is quite striking for the shapeliness and warmth of his phrasing as well as being duly athletic in his big aria at the end of Act 1. Of course, the central figure is James Bowman in the very demanding title-role, composed (said Mrs Delany) for “a block with a very fine voice”. Bowman, happily, matches only half of that description. He is in excellent voice, as full and rich as ever, singing in his characteristic style, and duly agile in the rapid music.
Joseph is well suited to Robert King’s way of conducting Handel. This is not a specially dramatic performance, but carefully moulded, well balanced, intelligently paced. The choir (14.8.6.9: though the tenor line doesn’t sound undermanned) produce a sound that is bright and firm, and the singing is resolute, although the attack is soft-edged rather than incisive. King is particularly good at shaping the dynamics in a natural and unanimous way. There is some modest ornamentation in the aria da capos and appoggiaturas are supplied, sensibly if a little conservatively, in the recitatives. I have no reservations about encouraging anyone interested in Handel to buy this set and to acquaint themselves with the many delights of this grossly neglected work.'

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