Handel: Joseph and His Brethren

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Joseph and His Brethren
PERFORMER: Yvonne Kenny (soprano), Catherine Denley (mezzo-soprano), Connor Burrowes (treble), James Bowman (countertenor), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Michael George (bass); Choir of New College, Oxford, The King’s Consort &Choir/Robert King
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67171/3
Joseph and His Brethren was first performed in 1744 and initially proved more popular than both its predecessor Semele and its successor Hercules. Twentieth-century opinion has reversed that judgement, with Joseph now regarded as a mediocre work sandwiched between two masterpieces. The lapse is blamed on James Miller’s libretto, variously described as ‘a farrago’ (Jonathan Keates) and ‘a linguistic monstrosity’ (Winton Dean). (Recent research suggests that for Acts IIand III, Miller drew on an earlier Italian oratorio.)

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Three years ago, Robert King rescued Deborah from similar calumny, but his attempt to salvage Joseph’s reputation is less persuasive. Whoever was responsible, the libretto remains a liability – banal, undramatic, over-long. There is some fine music – the prison scenes, the end-of-act choruses, a handful of cherishable arias – but too often Handel sounds desperately uninspired, like a perfunctory imitation of himself.

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The performers’ verve and commitment can’t be faulted. James Bowman strives to animate the wooden Joseph, John Mark Ainsley is an intense Simeon, Yvonne Kenny a spirited Asenath. In vain. This year has seen many people waking up to the delights of Handel’s vocal music; Joseph, I fear, is more likely to send its audience to sleep. Graham Lock