London Handel Festival 2009 – Jephtha

Jephtha – Oratorio in three parts

Jephtha, leader of the Israelites – John Mark Ainsley
Zebul, his brother – Derek Welton
Storgè, his wife – Diana Moore
Iphis, their daughter – Sarah Tynan
Hamor, her fiancé – Iestyn Davies
Angel – Rhona McKail

London Handel Singers

London Handel Orchestra
Laurence Cummings (harpsichord)

Reviewed by: Melanie Eskenazi

Reviewed: 14 April, 2009
Venue: St George’s Hanover Square, London

Laurence Cummings“Jephtha” was the last oratorio Handel was to write, so it made an especially fitting close to the thirty-second London Handel Festival, on the exact 250th-anniversary of the composer’s death, with a starry cast of truly Handelian singers. A packed St George’s experienced a deeply moving performance of the work which, more than any other, seems to lay bare the soul of “the Shakespeare of Music”.

Laurence Cummings directed from the harpsichord, and little attempt was made to dramatise the proceedings: this was appropriate, since oratorio does not always lend itself to an overly operatic approach – the drama is in the singing, and we had plenty of that. “Jephtha” tells the story of the Israelite leader who pledges the life of his only daughter in exchange for “victory and peace”.

The title role requires a singer with immense powers of characterisation as well as prodigious vocal technique – both of these were amply provided by John Mark Ainsley, who recorded the part in 1992. That recording still sets the standard for this role. However, on the evidence of the current performance, it’s time for a new one, since not only does Ainsley now give a much deeper reading but Cummings also infuses the score with a verve and power not yet committed to a recording of this work.

Jephtha’s first aria, ‘Virtue my soul shall still embrace’, is as masterly an exposition of one man’s misplaced self-confidence as Handel ever wrote – the ornate lines swell with hubris, and Ainsley’s amazingly virtuoso decorations conveyed all the character’s pomposity. The necessary heroic tone was supplied for ‘And safe return, a glorious conqueror’ as was the boastful emphasis given to ‘His mighty arm’ with such flaunting of vocal prowess as I don’t think any other singer would dare to attempt (not that most have the wherewithal, anyway). ‘Waft her, angels, through the skies’ is one of Handel’s most beautiful arias – Ainsley sang it with matchless tenderness and eloquence.

John Mark Ainsley. Photograph: Marc EskenaziAinsley was surrounded by some of the best young Handelians. Countertenor Iestyn Davies is fast taking on the mantle of James Bowman; his Hamor had everything this part requires, from the confident declamatory strength needed in ‘If such thy cruel purpose’ to the sweetness of tone and moving quality of intonation in ‘Tis Heav’n’s all-ruling pow’r’. He was almost equalled by the sympathetic and gentle-toned Iphis of Sarah Tynan, her vocal agility sometimes challenged by Cummings’s tempos, but her interpretation was always convincing. Diana Moore was a late replacement for Charlotte Hellekant, but she transcended this to give a portrayal of Storgè that was as warm in tone and empathetic of manner as I have heard – and she negotiated the taxing lines of ‘Sweet as sight to the blind’ without losing the crispness of her diction.

Derek Welton won the 2007 Handel Singing Competition. It was good to hear him as Zebul: this is a true Handelian bass, a singer with everything needed for this music except, perhaps, greater variation of colour in the tone, but that will surely come. ‘Laud her, all ye virgin train’ was commandingly sung, and he provided ideal strength in the recitatives. Rhona McKail displayed a bright, supple soprano as the Angel, and as Israelites the London Handel Singers were convincing either in joy or torment, ‘O God, behold our sore distress’ being especially well delivered.

Laurence Cummings’s direction might not please everyone: he drives the music on from the harpsichord as though impelled by the composer’s hand on his shoulder, and he does not give singers an easy ride. However, this makes for thrilling drama, and he shaped the arias eloquently, with very fine support from the players, especially flautist Neil McLaren.

A triumphant close to the 2009 London Handel Festival, then, which has yet again provided seven weeks of glorious music in some of the capital’s most evocative venues.

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