The librettist of Joseph and His Brethren was not Jennens or Morell or any of the other names familiar from Handel's oratorios. It was a certain James Miller, a rural vicar who sounds as if he would have been interesting to know. He queered his pitch with the ecclesiastical authorities by writing stage satires, and he died at age 36 shortly after Joseph was premiered. However before his untimely demise he set what ought to have become a precedent. Appreciating, it seems, that the plot of the oratorio, although not complicated, might be unintelligible to its audience without some background information, he provided what he called an `advertisement' summarising the biblical story. I suspect that to this day eager audiences for Il Trovatore might be grateful for something similar.
Miller's libretto is not bad, although not comparable with what Jennens could do, as in Samson not to say Messiah itself. The diction is straight out of the trite 18th-century phrase-mill admittedly. However an oratorio libretto, focusing less on action than an opera book would need to and more on simple situations and statements, is really a far harder thing to get wrong, and Miller seems to me to turn out a perfectly adequate piece of work. Handel, predictably, does much better. I would not myself quite rate Joseph with Samson or Belshazzar, but there's not much I would rate with those. It seems that Handel had the time to compose Joseph mainly from scratch without borrowings or adaptations or recycling, but all his familiar magic is here again.
I have got used to Robert King's Handel issues by now, and I think I admire them more with every successive acquisition. As an exponent of the `authentic' school of ancient music he seems to me more relaxed than, for example, McCreesh does. This way of interpreting Handel and Bach has gradually imbued our culture over the last 30 years, but to whatever extent there is still resistance to be overcome King is more urbane in the way he overcomes it. I'd guess that the main stumbling-block for conservative listeners in this performance would be the counter-tenor role of Joseph, sung by James Bowman. This is one of the two lead parts, along with that of Asenath sung by Yvonne Kenny. As well as carrying the spotlight, the counter-tenor voice is also deployed face-to-face in the scenes with the boy treble role of Benjamin. Bowman is of course a total professional and expert in this kind of music, but it may be that his particular tone and enunciation could fatigue the ear after a while, and I wonder whether any consideration was given to casting Michael Chance instead. Whatever - I'll never know that, and Bowman performs with his familiar artistry. I can't imagine who Yvonne Kenny might seem controversial to, and she seems to me superb from beginning to end. With Catherine Denley, John Mark Ainsley and Michael George in the other parts quality and beauty of sound are guaranteed, and a particular prize should go to the youngster Connor Burrowes as Benjamin. If this is a cameo role it's quite a big cameo role, and he carries it off with aplomb. The orchestral contribution is magnificent as usual, and the choir sing as if inspired from above. Considering what they are given to sing this is only what one would hope for and expect. I tend to think that Handel's choral writing could make a heavenly host out of a choir of orcs.
With Joseph my collection of the oratorios of Handel (17 of them on my own definition) is now complete. They are a musical world of their own, and they are one of the crowning glories of European music. I don't expect I have stopped collecting them, because fine though the accounts that I own from King and others are, music of this stature benefits from a range of interpretations, as indeed does the music of far lower stature that is more commonly performed. Apart from adding what must be, after what I have just said, a superfluous recommendation of this magnificent set, and expressing my thanks to Robert King and to Hyperion, there seems to be little else to say - unless perhaps `Hallelujah'.