Jephtha is Handel’s last oratorio, and despite its high critical standing, this was only its second complete Proms performance. Sadly, despite some excellent musicianship, like its eponymous hero, it was beset by decisions resulting in unlooked-for challenges.
The first of these was the Albert Hall itself, in which it is nearly impossible to bring off Baroque music successfully. While the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and their chorus under Richard Egarr turned in some crisp and clearly audible accounts (and one would hope the latter, as they’d opted for a modern-instrument performance with a full complement of players and a choir of 60), some of the soloists’ voices, with their more authentically Baroque-styled vocal production, disappeared into the Hall’s vastness.
Notwithstanding the decision for modern instrumentation, Egarr’s approach to the Handel was faultless in its period nuance. The agitato of ‘Let other creatures die’, the jolting dotted rhythm of ‘How dark O Lord’ and the lilting chirrups of ‘Dull delay’ demonstrated a clear understanding of historical performance practice. The throaty horns in ‘When his loud voice’ added some enjoyable texture, as did the mellow bassoon insertions in the final quintet. But, in spite of Egarr’s iron control of dynamic, the orchestral sound was often just too lush to accommodate the soloists, whose voices would have stood out better in the thinner but more gnarly texture of a smaller, period-instrument ensemble.
The chorus, in their few numbers, showed a consummate understanding of blend, dynamic and attack, and tackled Handel’s many fugues with a clear sense of the counterpoint’s direction. The drama of the final ‘Whatever is right’ exclamations in ‘How dark’ was superb.
Of the soloists, the men fared best. Allan Clayton, singing Jephtha, has a clear tenor voice that cut through the orchestral texture, such that the tragic force of ‘Open thy marble jaws’ came across well, and ‘Waft her, angels’ was utterly beautiful, Clayton’s voice (even in the ‘alt’ da capo) matching the pianissimo strings perfectly.
Tim Mead’s countertenor voice sits in that happy medium between piercing and overly voluptuous. Hamor’s arias, therefore, rang out loud and clear, and the triumphant attack of ‘Up the dreadful steep ascending’ and the angry reproach of ‘On me let blind mistaken zeal’ were well expressed. Jephtha’s half-brother Zebul, sadly, is given only a few numbers, but Cody Quattlebaum executed them with élan, the clarity of his rich, edgy baritone, leaving one wanting more.
Jeanine De Bique has an utterly enchanting voice, and her second Proms appearance was much anticipated. Here, though, was another unfortunate decision. Iphis is one of those types whose role is simply to be virginal and modest; her arias consequently are mostly low in the voice and legato. De Bique’s forte is with bravura material (her last Proms appearance included a breathtaking account of ‘Rejoice greatly’), and although all of her numbers were full of that trademark sweetness and cream, it was often lost in the acoustic; only in her duets with Mead was some of the sparkle and brilliance of her upper register unleashed.
The least audible of the soloists was Hilary Summers, singing Storgè. Her contralto voice is generally rich and solid, and it was clear that she was giving everything, but all too often it fell short, so that, for example, the guts and attack of ‘Scenes of horror’ were muted.
In the bible story, no angel appears to liberate Jephtha’s daughter from sacrifice, but, in an appropriate twist, Rowan Pierce’s angel (invented by Morell, Handel’s librettist, to give the story a happy ending) rescued the female soloist line-up from the shadows with her bright, clarion soprano.