That we have come to expect nothing less from the Gabrieli Consort & Players’ Artistic Director, Paul McCreesh, is entirely irrelevant.
When one man’s vision for a piece is so strong, and so ably realised on the night, the results are nothing short of wondrous.
Composed in 1751, Handel’s Jephtha relates the story from Judges XI in which the Israelite leader is forced to kill his own daughter, Iphis, after vowing that he will sacrifice the first living thing he sees if he is victorious in battle. To make this acceptable to an eighteenth century audience, Handel’s librettist, Thomas Morrell, modified the ending so that Iphis is ‘reprieved’ and required only to live out her days as a virgin, but with this twist coming right at the end it only piles a further layer of emotions onto the piece.
Whilst Handel himself observed that the English like to be ‘hit on the drum of the ear’, McCreesh was clearly more interested in presenting a multi-layered, though incredibly coherent, interpretation. At the evening’s heart lay his exceptional understanding of how to pace the ‘drama’ by ensuring that every transition from recitative to aria, and every associated alteration in tempo, was precisely and brilliantly managed.
McCreesh also supplemented the Gabrieli Consort with fourteen singers from Poland’s Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir, which gave the chorus a more flavoursome (and slightly less English) sound. Though the four voice sections blended well, each also possessed its own unique qualities. The sopranos’ top notes were superbly rounded, whilst the altos produced a highly textured sound. The tenors possessed a quiet understated strength, their voices burning with passion from within, whilst the basses were cool, calm and reflective.
McCreesh was slightly less successful, however, in exerting his control over the soloists who all applied their own style to their respective characters. Nevertheless, since each did so so well, this hardly mattered.
Mhairi Lawson and the countertenor Daniel Taylor had a good rapport as the young lovers, Iphis and Hamor, and their final expression of how they would always honour each other brought out their contrasting feelings. Whilst Iphis was ultimately happy that she would live for now, and end up in heaven as a pure soul, Hamor could not hide his basic, and intrinsically human, disappointment at the thought that she would never be his. As Storge, Christianne Stotijn’s thick voice revealed the range of emotions she felt as both wife to Jephtha and mother to Iphis, whilst treble, and Winchester College Quirister, William Docherty excelled as the Angel.
But among the soloists it was two other men who came out best. As Zebul, Andrew Foster-Williams’ voice possessed an inherent depth, which he used to deliver a sound that was striking yet incredibly pure, whilst Mark Padmore was predictably superb in the title role. In portraying this earthy belligerent figure, he was able to explore emotions that the more ethereal roles he has played in both of Bach’s Passions have never permitted. And as his voice lurched effectively between sorrow, anger and madness, it was clear he was making the most of the opportunity.