About us / Contact

The Classical Music Network


Europe : Paris, Londn, Zurich, Geneva, Strasbourg, Bruxelles, Gent
America : New York, San Francisco, Montreal                       WORLD

Your email :



Handel from first to last

Freemason's Hall
06/02/1999 -  

Freemason's Hall
2 June 1999
George Frideric Handel Jephtha
David Wilson Johnson (Zebul), Mark Padmore (Jephtha), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Storge), Alison Browner (Hamor), Helen Williams (Iphis), Carolyn Sampson (Angel)
Harry Christophers (conductor), Aidan Lang (director)
The Sixteen, The Symphony of Harmony and Invention

St John's, Smith Square
7 June 1999
George Frideric Handel La Resurrezione
Deborah York (Angel), David Wilson-Johnson (Lucifer), Emma Kirkby (Mary Magdalene), Susan Bickley (Mary Cleophas), Paul Agnew (St John)
Ivor Bolton (conductor)
St James's Baroque Players

London's glut of festivals in early June regularly has two treats for Handel lovers, one in the Covent Garden Festival and the other in the Lufthansa Festival. This year the two festivals interestingly delivered excellent performances Handel's first and last oratorios within a week. Handel wrote La Resurrezione in Rome at the age of twenty three, in Italian for a Catholic audience at Easter, and Jephtha in London more than fifty years later, in English for commercial production for a mainly Anglican audience.

The differences are obvious: the music of La Resurrezione is straightforward Italian baroque, though already with Handel's muscular sense of harmonic development, while that of Jephtha is expressive in a way that looks forward to romanticism. Likewise with the themes and plots: La Resurrezione is a statement of faith and joy in the resurrection of Christ, in a traditional format similar to a mediaeval mystery play, with a bumptious devil and mourning women; in Jephtha the drama is a conflict within an individual which is resolved, still problematically, by divine intervention in a way which looks to contemporary philosophical debates.

But both works, and almost every other oratorio Handel wrote, share an outstanding sense of drama and emotional sympathy. "Caro figlio", the aria in which St John recounts the mourning of Mary, the mother of Jesus, for her dead son, has the same poignancy as "Waft her, angels", Jephtha's prayer for the daughter he is about to sacrifice, if not its musical sophistication.

Harry Christophers led a nearly perfect performance of Jephtha, in the Covent Garden Festival. Mark Padmore sang with electrifying intensity as Jephtha, perhaps only lacking the aggression that drives the old soldier to offer a sacrifice in return for victory and then insist on killing his daughter. Helen Williams, stepping in at the last minute for Rosa Mannion, was an elegant Iphis, and Alison Browner sounded gorgeous and was very moving in the normally thankless role of Hamor, Iphis' bethothed. Catherine Wyn-Rogers wasn't quite scary enough as Storge, but also sang outstandingly beautifully. David Wilson-Johnson was a sincere but insecure Zebul, very effective vocally and dramatically. The Sixteen sang the amazing choruses with a incredible sense of drama and impeccable musical skill.

The direction, using the aisles, the balcony and the space around the orchestra, which was in the middle of the hall, was also excellent, with Jephtha's performance of "Waft her, angels" facing Iphis across the orchestra and the scene of the sacrifice particularly effective. The singers acted powerfully throughout. The only flaw was the use of lurid coloured and strobe lights which risked turning a gut-wrenching internal drama into melodrama.

The first performance of La Resurrezione had a much more elaborate setting than any of Handel's London oratorios. The concert version at St John's, Smith Square, that opened the Lufthansa Festival was pure stand-and-deliver, but its dramatic impact was impossible to miss.

The first part consists of comic sparring between the angel who opens up hell after the resurrection of Christ and a gruff devil who is the first in a long line of Handelian thuggish idiots. The second part is the heartbroken reaction to the crucifixion by Mary Magdalene and Mary Cleophas, with St John comforting them with Jesus' promise that he will rise again. The angel and Lucifer then overhear Mary Magdalene's account of her meeting with the risen Christ in the garden, and the devil goes fizzling back to hell. The women tell St John about the resurrection and all praise God.

Deborah York (who seems to have a golden glow about her) sang stylishly as the angel. Emma Kirkby, not in particularly good voice tonight, was a bit too sweet as Mary Magdalene, but Susan Bickley was expressive and forceful as Mary Cleophas. Paul Agnew sang beautifully, but was a bit monotone as St John. David Wilson-Johnson, again, got a lot of fun from Lucifer's music, which is almost guaranteed to make listeners grin with its depiction of stupidity.

St James's Baroque Players don't have the polish or complexity of Harry Christophers' ensemble, but they were accurate and spirited under Ivor Bolton's direction. The natural brass were particularly stirring and well tuned.

H.E. Elsom



Copyright ©ConcertoNet.com