Handel: Jephtha

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

WORKS: Jephtha
PERFORMER: James Gilchrist (tenor), Mona Julsrud, Elisabeth Rapp (soprano), Elisabeth Jansson, Marianne B Kielland (mezzo), Hårvard Stensvold (baritone); Collegium Vocale Gent; Stavanger SO/Fabio Biondi

Handel was a devout man, yet his oratorios often reveal a significant distaste for fundamentalism. Written in 1751, Jephtha betrays that struggle between belief and reason. The story, like that of Abraham and Isaac, is one of total submission to divine will. ‘Whatever is, is right’ sing the Israelite Priests as they prepare for the sacrifice of Jephtha’s daughter, Iphis, in payment for victory over the Ammonites. The cruel austerity of this Act III chorus is telling. And although Jephtha’s family gratefully accede to the last-minute intervention of an Angel, packing Iphis off to a pre-Christian nunnery instead, something of its sourness taints the pseudo-happy ending.
The expressive singing of Collegium Vocale Gent is one of the most attractive elements in Fabio Biondi’s live recording of Jephtha. The choir sound more free than they do under their founder, Philippe Herreweghe, though the quality of the solo singing is less reliable. Elisabeth Jansson’s fervent Storge and Havard Stensvold’s upright Zebul outshine their colleagues. James Gilchrist is slow in warming to the horror of Jephtha’s predicament, and although his coloratura is meticulous, he sounds more like the dynamic head of a high-achieving grammar school than he does a warrior. Overall, for a stronger line-up of soloists as well as fine choral singing, John Eliot Gardiner’s classic recording, now on Decca Originals, is still the prime recommendation.
Yet Biondi is a meticulous orchestral trainer. Stavanger Symphony Orchestra adapts well to the stylistic demands of this work, most vividly in the scurrying semi-quavers of the entrance of the Angel (Elisabeth Rapp), the Act II and III symphonies and the Overture, which they play with buoyancy and discipline. Anna Picard