wed 22/11/2017

Jephtha, The Sixteen, Christophers, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Jephtha, The Sixteen, Christophers, Barbican

Jephtha, The Sixteen, Christophers, Barbican

A vivid, operatic performance of Handel's final oratorio

Sophie Bevan: this homegrown soprano just keeps getting better and better

You really think they’d have learned by now. Any operatic vow to sacrifice the next living creature you see in return for salvation will reliably end up with the luckless suppliant faced with their lover/son/spouse. For those who haven’t already learned this handy lesson from Mozart’s Idomeneo, there’s Handel’s Jephtha. Its skeletal (and frankly rather daft) plot matters little, however. It’s the scaffolding for some of the composer’s most glorious oratorio writing, which last night was given the full (and often equally glorious) Sixteen treatment.

There’s a gloss to The Sixteen’s sound that’s particularly distinctive in their performances with orchestra. It’s the rounder, softer-edged cousin of the gut-and-fury Italianate texture that characterises so many European early music ensembles, and makes everything it touches beautiful. Sometimes this can risk dissolving drama into abstract loveliness, but with a piece like Jephtha that is more about subtle gradations of contemplation than action it works well.

The pianissimo Gilchrist found for the da capo had a full audience in thrall

Handel’s last oratorio is the summation of a career of exploring melodic psychology, and the touchstone of any performance is the excruciatingly exquisite “Waft her, Angels”, sung by Jephtha as he prepares to sacrifice his daughter Iphis. James Gilchrist brought Evangelist-like directness to it, and was shattering in his simplicity. There’s nowhere to hide in the arching, rising lines that ascend even as they so desperately hope their subject will. The pianissimo he found for the da capo had a full audience in thrall, not least for its contrast to the thunder and power he had delivered only moments earlier.

Sophie Bevan’s Iphis was no less impressive, delivering controlled delicacy in “Farewell, ye limpid springs”, and folk-like, lilting charm for “Take the heart”. Balance in the hall was oddly stacked in favour of the orchestra, and Bevan emerged best among the soloists, swelling into generous sweetness at the top of the voice. A less obvious bit of casting was Susan Bickley’s Storgé. She may have a voice capable of adapting to unusually diverse repertoire, but that doesn’t mean she excels equally across all of it. I adore her in Janáček or contemporary repertoire, but here it was hard to look past the jolting gear shift into chest voice, and the rather colourless tone and uncherished recitative as she held back her full force.

It was good to see Robin Blaze back on the concert platform, radiating joy and personality. His voice has acquired a little more husk than it once had, but like the tone of a baroque flute it’s a rather attractive quality in this music, and he still has all his old agility when it comes to coloratura, deftly weaving his way through some of the more athletic writing of the piece. Christophers’s direction kept things moving throughout, but even at fairly perky speeds we could have done with a little more heft from The Sixteen. Their grieving choruses were models of careful detail and ensemble, but among so much generous orchestral playing they were a little lost in moments of climax.

Christophers and his musicians (pictured above) will soon be recording Jephtha, and it will be interesting to hear which artists flourish in the studio and which worked better in concert context. I suspect Blaze’s performance on disc will be well worth a listen, and Bevan’s Iphis is definitely a keeper.

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