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HANDEL Jephtha at Maulbronn

Emma Kirkby (soprano), Melinda Paulsen (mezzo-soprano), Charles Humphries (alto), Julian Podger (tenor), Stephen Varcoe (bass), Barockorchester der Klosterkonzerte, Maulbronner Kammerchor, Conductor: Jürgen Budday

K&K 3-930643-60-X [2 CDs, 150 min, 1998]
(Purchase from K&K)

Jephtha, written in London 1751, was Händel's last major work. It is another version of the familiar tale of an unwise promise of sacrifice, which rebounds, in this case by his own daughter being the first to greet him and become the victim of his rash promise to the Gods; a contrived (fairly) happy but equivocal ending (not according to the Old Testament) exchanges death for lifelong virginity . . . .

I have difficulties with Handel oratorios in the 21st Century. Some notably brilliant directors have rethought them as operas with important parts for chorus (which his operas don't have). This is very much a traditional oratorio concert performance, recorded live in the original English before an audience (congregation) in the resonant ecclesiastical acoustic at from the convent church in Maulbronn.

It is a good performance with a 'historically informed' orchestra under Jürgen Budday, and I would fault only the sometimes stolid rendition of the recitatives. Most of the solo singers are British, and I was greatly impressed by the Jephtha (Julian Podger), counter-tenor Charles Humphries as Hamor and (as always) Emma Kirkby as the daughter who embraces her fate and is saved from slaughter in the nick of time. Disappointing was her mother Melinda Paulsen, with too much vibrato to my taste and (inexcusable penny-pinching) doubling as the Angel. Seeing Iphis's mother stand up again to become the Angel at that crucial moment is, perhaps, in the oratorio tradition, but must have diminished the effect at Maulbronn.

We are now three years into the 2000s, and anyone lucky enough to have seen and heard Jephtha in Welsh National Opera's touring production directed by Katie Mitchell will not be eager to revisit it in Church (but q.v. my strictures about that production after seeing it again in London, 2005).

The role of another Handel oratorio Angel was expanded, to unforgettable effect, in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's great Susanna. My review includes an account of the thinking of the innovative director Stephen Medcalf.

Both of those oratorio/opera productions deserve wider availability as DVDs.

Meanwhile, this Maulbronn live performance CD will give a great deal of pleasure, especially if purchasers take the opportunity to look around the venue on the Maulbronn Edition website. The necessary background about Maulbronn and Jephtha is provided on luxurious-looking gold print on a dark blue background; fine to read if you have a light shining on the page at the right angle. Only track headings are provided with the notes, but the full text can be read and downloaded free from the Web.

(I should declare an interest, because my son Simon Woolf shone to great effect
as The Angel in the first recording of Jephtha on LP.)

(Vanguard Cardinal VCS 10077-79 [1970] nla)

The Maulbronner Kammerchor, which concentrates on 19th & 20th C repertoire, can also be enjoyed under Jürgen Budday on a CD of unaccompanied choral music of Lassus, Rheinberger, Mendelssohn, Reger etc; the most interesting item is Purcell's Hear my Prayer arranged by Sven David Sandstrom. As soon as it starts (pure Purcell) one is struck by how modern is our great composer, and Sandstrom turns the screw by heightening dissonance and dynamics to a powerful climax, K&K 3-930643-64-2.


© Peter Grahame Woolf