United Kingdom Handel – Jephtha: Soloists, Holst Singers, Academy of Ancient Music / Stephen Layton (conductor), St John’s Smith Square, London, 20.5.2017. (CC)
Jephtha – Nick Pritchard
Storgé – Helen Charlsto
Zebul – Matthew Brook
Hamor – James Hall
Iphis – Mary Bevan
Angel – Rowan Pierce
This was the concluding concert of the 2017 London Festival of Baroque Music. Fittingly, perhaps, Jephtha constitutes Handel’s final full oratorio (it was composed between January and August 1751). It was written to a libretto by Thomas Morrell who included texts by Milton, Pope, Addison and John Hoadley in amongst his own words. Despite its Old Testament storyline (from the Book of Judges), Handel manages to create an intensely human drama. Jephtha is an Israelite commander who bargains with his God that if he defeats the Ammonites he will sacrifice the first person he sees on returning to his homeland. As luck would have it (and, frankly, without this the story would fall flat), the first person he claps eyes on is is own daughter, Iphis. It is left to an Angel to (kind of) see sense and interrupt at the last moment, claim that Jephtha has proved his faith and that Iphis may live if she remains a virgin and dedicates herself to God. Not the most compassionate of Gods, this one, it would appear; it is not as if Iphis herself had actually done anything wrong. Yet Handel finds great music here, not least in the choral contributions, provided by the excellent Holst Singers. Their rhythmic bounce in ‘No more to Ammon’s god and king’ was lovely, as was the sense of a choral blossoming; at the other side of the coin was the shaded mystery of
‘How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees’ that ends Act II.
It is Zebul who kicks things off though, with his aria ‘Pour forth no more’, its initial arpeggio coming across as a bass voice fanfare gesture. Matthew Brook’s diction was superb in the preceding accompagnato.
Nick Pritchard sang the title role. Initially there was a small bleat to his voice that seemed to work itself out; there was also just the feeling that he did not do full justice to the air ‘Open thy marble jaws, O tomb’, a truly great piece. His best air, delivered with honeyed tone, was the third act ‘Waft herm angels, through the skies’. Helen Charlston was a big-voiced Storgè, her voice coming across with an edge that was mainly, but not always, pleasant. The air, ‘Scenes of horror, scenes of woe’ suited her perfectly, including moments of softening that showed another side of her artistry.
The counter-tenor James Hall was a fine, strong Hamor, capable of emoting ‘Dull delay, in piercing anguish’ well. Rowan Pierce’s bright soprano was perfectly chosen for the Angel; her diction, too, was splendid, as was the cleanliness of her intervals in ‘Happy Iphis, shalt thou live’.
Perhaps finest of the soloists was Mary Bevan’s Iphis. Bevan had impressed earlier in the week in Handel’s Ariodante at the Barbican, and once more she shone, her intervals tellingly pure, her lines beautifully considered. The duet with Hamor, ‘These labours past, how happy we!’ was a real highpoint, the two voices blending beautifully while her air, ‘Tune the soft melodious lute’ found her spinning Handel’s long line with real grace. She has a clarion top, too, as revealed in ‘Welcome as the cheerful light’ and the joyous ‘Freely I to Heav’n resign’; yet the most poignant air, ‘Farewell, ye limpid streams and floods’ suited her perfectly too.
Handel’s writing for orchestra is stunning, from the long flute solo around Storgè’s first entrance to the bare string writing he finds for the most poignant moments. The orchestra was generally on top form, the only caveat coming in the form of the two trumpets, whose slightly lacklustre playing seemed rather incongruous in context. Nevertheless, this was a fine performance of a marvellous piece.