George Friedrich Handel: Jephtha, HWV 70
Benjamin Hulett (Jephtha), Kirsten Blaise (Iphis, Angel), Annelie Sophie Müller (Storgè), David Allsopp (Hamor), Simon Bailey (Zebul), Maulbronn Chamber Choir, Ensemble Il Capriccio, Jürgen Budday (conductor)
Recorded at the Maulbronn monastery, Germany (2012) – 173’
2 CDs K&K Verlagsanstalt KuK 111 – Notes in German and English; text in English
This recording (title Oratorium Jephtha) is in many ways a real treasure. Its chief value is that it vividly captures a wonderful performance of Handel’s final oratorio, giving the listener a fine impression of the venue, the medieval Maulbronn monastery in southern Germany. The opening notes of the thrillingly dramatic overture grab the listener’s interest and the well-chosen soloists make a vivid impression.
The story involves the military leader, Jephtha (tenor), who is asked by his brother, Zebul (baritone) to lead the Israelites against their oppressors, the Ammonites. Jephtha vows that, if successful, he will sacrifice the first person he sees after the battle. This turns out to be his daughter, Iphis (soprano). His wife, Storgè (mezzo-soprano) and Iphis’s fiancé Hamor (counter-tenor), are suitably horrified, as are the onlooking Israelites. An angel (soprano) transmutes Iphis's sentence to life as a virgin; hallelujahs are sung.
Benjamin Hulett is outstanding as Jephtha who at first is exuberant when facing his military task, then anguished and horrified at the results of his vow. His accompagnato “Deeper, and deeper still” would be worthy of a musical dramatization of King Lear. The other main role is that of Iphis, sung by American soprano Kirsten Blaise; she also must express a wide range of emotions and carries it off extremely well. Simon Bailey is rich-voiced and stalwart as Zebul, and Annelie Sophie Müller as Storgè is blessed with a voice that has a rosy bloom about it. David Allsopp gets off to an uncertain start as Hamor but in the end rises to full worthy participation in his duet with Iphis, plus a quartet and quintet with the other principals.
The 39-member choir and 26-member orchestra provide exactly the right sound for this great work. The orchestra use specially reconstructed period instruments tuned to the historically accurate a=415 Hz. Jürgen Budday’s tempi are well-judged throughout. Some might find the acoustic to be overly resonant, but I find it helps bring to life a performance I wish I had been able to attend.
Given that there is almost three hours of superb-sounding music on just two CDs, it seems a bit churlish to point out that cuts have been made, one of them grievous and puzzling. Scenes five and six in Act I have been cut, including the great showpiece aria for Storgè, “Scenes of horror”. I’m sure Annelie Sophie Müller would have done a fine job with it. Also omitted is an air in Act II for Zebul and one in Act III for Hamor. Jürgen Budday and his group issued a recording of Jephtha on the K&K label in 1998; it was criticized for cast weaknesses - and for omitting “Scenes if horror”. This time the cast is uniformly strong, but the same omission renders the recording less than 100% recommendable.
Still the stated aim of K&K is to capture an outstanding performance in which "the performers, audience, opus and room enter into an intimate dialogue that is...unique and unrepeatable". This they have accomplished.