HANDEL Joseph and his Brethren
'A inimitable composition’, enthused the Earl of Egmont after the 1744 Covent Garden premiere of Joseph. The oratorio’s success, in the same season that Semele flopped, encouraged Handel to revive it in several later seasons. Posterity, though, has judged differently. Today Joseph is probably the least performed of all the oratorios, hobbled by the Dorset vicar James Miller’s (to us) opaque, bathetic libretto. ‘A linguistic monstrosity’ was the verdict of the Handel scholar Winton Dean, and from a 21st-century perspective it’s hard to disagree. Language apart, Miller had zero feeling for dramatic structure and pacing. Yet Handel’s audience would have been largely familiar with the back story of the patriarch Joseph, sold into slavery in Egypt by his half-brothers – a popular subject for sermons and moralising tracts in 18th-century England. They would also have picked up many contemporary political resonances. What now seems impenetrable, sententious and/or cloyingly sentimental chimed perfectly with the taste of the day.
Still, the crucial thing for modern listeners is how far the music transcends Miller’s insipid, sometimes laughable libretto. While only the most uncritical Handel devotee would claim Joseph as an out-and-out masterpiece, it contains many memorable things, beginning with one of Handel’s finest overtures. Joseph himself, lurching between disquiet, petulance and self-pity, has a powerful prison scene (though Miller leaves us guessing as to why he is there) and an idyllic, nostalgic pastoral, ‘The peasant tastes the sweets of life’ – a vein that always brought out the best in Handel. The music for young Benjamin, originally composed for a boy treble, mingles innocence and delicate pathos; and the character of the guilt-ridden but fundamentally decent brother Simeon consistently ignited Handel’s imagination. The arias for Pharaoh’s butler Phanor and Joseph’s wife Asenath can be generic. That said, Phanor’s ‘Our fruits, whilst yet in blossom, die’ and the central section of Asenath’s ‘The silver stream’ have a serene breadth that is uniquely Handelian. Inspired, too, are the sombre choruses for the penitential Brethren, above all the prayer ‘O God, who in thy heaven’ly hand’, with its intricately worked chromatic fugue: vintage Handel, this.
Joseph was well served by the one previous recording, from Robert King and his Consort. If in the end I slightly prefer it to this new version from the seasoned Handelian Nicholas McGegan and his polished Californian forces, it is a close-run thing. While McGegan usually chooses apt tempos, rhythms occasionally seem under-vitalised – say in Joseph’s air ‘Come, divine inspirer’, or the chorus of Egyptians ‘O God of Joseph’, which trips along amiably but lacks the urgency and bite of King and his all-male choir. Against that, ‘O God, who in thy heaven’ly hand’, taken broadly by McGegan, has impressive gravitas and cumulative power.
Vocally McGegan’s soloists are at least a match for King’s. The standout for me is Nicholas Phan’s intense, impassioned portrayal of Simeon. His tormented ‘Impostor! Ah my foul offence’ is a highlight of the whole performance. Diana Moore makes a mellifluous, dignified Joseph, firmer in tone, if less dramatically involved, than James Bowman in the rival recording. If the role occasionally sounds a little too low for her, she brings a gentle warmth to ‘The peasant tastes the sweets of life’, sensitively accompanied by McGegan. The final denouement, as Joseph reveals his identity to the brothers, is as moving as it should be.
While Sherezade Panthaki, as Asenath, and Abigail Levis, as Phanor, can be word-shy, both sing with attractive, full tone and a sure sense of Handelian style. Asenath’s ‘Ah Jealousy, thou pelican’ (ludicrous words to us, yet instantly comprehensible to Handel’s public) needs more vehemence, and duly receives it from Yvonne Kenny on King’s recording. But Panthaki rises superbly to the virtuoso challenge of her showcase aria ‘Prophetic raptures’, complete with extravagant interpolated cadenza.
Philip Cutlip, a solidly resonant Pharaoh, makes his mark in his rollicking aria with trumpet ‘Since the race of time began’; and Gabrielle Haigh’s fragile, boyish soprano is ideally cast in the role of Benjamin. The recorded sound is clear and well-balanced, and the documentation first-rate, with an eloquent assessment of the oratorio in its historical context from Jonathan Rhodes Lee. Whichever recording you choose – and neither should disappoint – you may well agree with him that the much-maligned Joseph is ripe for reasessment