George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759): Jephtha, HWV 70. Libretto by Thomas Morell. Performed by: John Mark Ainsley, tenor (Jephtha); Michael George, bass (Zebul); Catherine Denley, mezzosoprano (Storgè); Christiane Oelze, soprano (Iphis); Axel Köhler, countertenor (Hamor); Julia Gooding, soprano (angel); RIAS Chamber Choir, Berlin; Academy for Ancient Music, Berlin, directed by Marcus Creed. Recorded in June 1992 at the Church of the Good News in Berlin-Karlshorst. Published in 1994 as Berlin Classics BC 1057-2. (This is the edition I have, but there is also a budget priced reissue available from the Dutch label Brilliant Classics). Total time: 2 hrs 40 mins.
The Bible is very candid about its heroes, letting us see their faults and sins just as clearly as their great deeds of faith. In this respect, the book of Judges is typical: its heroes (Abimelech, Gideon, Jephtha, Samson) are all very fallible, in fact quite the opposite of what one might expect. This was not always understood by our Christian forefathers, who, sometimes over-pious, tended to gloss over the sins of these Jewish men of faith. Jephtha's vow to sacrifice the first thing (or person) who met him when he returned victoriously from battle against the Ammonites, Israel's oppressors, was definitely not praiseworthy but a most unwise and rash act, made so much the worse by the fact that he insisted on performing it when it turned out that it was his daughter who met him first (as he might have anticipated). His cruel act brought not only death and distress on those near and dear to him but also cast the worst of aspersions on the God he professed to serve, making him seem brutal and over-stern instead of the loving and forgiving God he had revealed himself to be. It seems that this was lost to view in the centuries following the Reformation. Not only the humanist Buchanan, on whose 16th century work Morell based his libretto, but also the 17th century Puritan commentator Rogers watered down the Judges story, making Jephtha's daughter become the equivalent of a nun for the rest of her life instead of being sacrificed. Morell, and Handel, were men of their age and adopted this version of the story for Handel's last oratorio (first performance 1752), bringing in an angel in Act 3 to sort out the problems. This makes the story-line rather unsatisfactory from a modern standpoint, but enables Handel to follow on from his "How dark, O Lord" at the end of Act 2 to the usual bright Hallelujah-type ending with trumpets and timpani. There is no doubt an autobiographical element here as Handel himself was going blind when he wrote the autograph, and the close of Act 2 can be seen as his personal struggle with ill-health and the will of God: "Whatever is, is right" is not meant as a kind of deistic confession but as submission to the all-wise will of God.
The performance of the oratorio by Marcus Creed and his team is in many ways ideal. The strings of the Berlin Academy for Ancient Music are pulsing with life and vitality right from the start, and the RIAS Chamber Choir was at its peak at this time, filling each chorus with just the right amount of energy and sentiment. The soloists were all well-known English and German experts in the field of historic performance and oratorio, and there was none I could fault. Axel Köhler was not perhaps quite in the Andreas Scholl category as a countertenor, but his performance here is quite delightful, making me think that he has been underrated. He and Christiane Oelze, the other German here, do an amazingly good job at pronouncing the English text, there is really no difference to be heard between them and the British singers involved. John Mark Ainsley and Michael George are their usual brilliant selves, Catherine Denley's dark mezzo is ideal for Jephtha's worried wife, and Julia Gooding's brief appearance as the angel is quite delectable. I suspect that if this recording had appeared on one of the major international labels, it would have been hailed as a great achievement and given prizes; as it is, it is a highly entertaining and worthwhile recording which I can recommend to anyone interested in Handel, in mid-18th century oratorio or even in baroque opera (Handel remained an opera composer all his life, and the series of recitatives and arias in "Jephtha" smacks of his earlier operas all the way through).