thu 19/09/2019

Prom 55: Jephtha, SCO & Chorus, Egarr review - shock of the new in sacrificial oratorio | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 55: Jephtha, SCO & Chorus, Egarr review - shock of the new in sacrificial oratorio

Prom 55: Jephtha, SCO & Chorus, Egarr review - shock of the new in sacrificial oratorio

Handel's searing response to Old Testament horror strikes afresh

Tim Mead, Rowan Pierce, Jeanine De Bique, Richard Egarr, Allan Clayton, Hilary Summers, Cody Quattlebaum and the SCO & ChorusAll images BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Human sacrifice has a disconcerting and wonderful effect upon great composers, above all when it involves the supremely queasy issue of a father vowing to offer up his child: think of Britten with Abraham and Isaac, Mozart with Idomeneo and Idamante, Gluck with Agamemnon and Iphigenia, and here Handel with Jephtha and Iphis in his last oratorio. How the nominally devout composer responded to this Old Testament horror is at its most astonishing in the choral response at the end of the Second Act, and that certainly hit us hard in last night's Prom.

Changing lines from Pope ending "what God ordains is right" to "whatever is, is right", Handel has the chorus hurl them out between pregnant silences. Nothing could have been more astounding than the way the SCO Chorus articulated them here under Richard Egarr, more as a series of angry question marks. This had to be one of the best performances ever from an amateur choir, all the better for the fact that the focus was never pulled from them as it had been from the Welsh and English National Opera choruses in Katie Mitchell's awkwardly blocked production, surplus (as this proved) to need. Richard EgarrNo doubt this splendid group's inspirational chorus master Gregory Batsleer is partly to thank. But Egarr (pictured above), fresh from harpsichord wizardry alongside three distinguished colleagues and the Dunedin Consort at the Edinburgh Festival, drew equal lightning force from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. How proud the late Charles Mackerras would be to hear his work applying authentic lessons to partly modern instruments in Scotland being continued here. We were, to say the least, at one remove from performances by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the Albert Hall as the SCO, rocked by vibrant bass-lines, plunged into the most turbulent and vivid of Handel overtures, swinging time signatures with fire and venom as the Israelites are discovered preparing for war with the Ammonites. The magnificent American bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum kept the tension flowing on curtain-up, as it were. Was this the best first 15 minutes of any Handel performance at the Proms?

In the solo line-up, the men had the vivid edge on the leading ladies. Both Trinidadian soprano Jeanine De Bique (pictured below with Egarr at the harpsichord) as sacrifice-to-be Iphis and Welsh-born contralto Hilary Summers as her mother Storgè have voices in a thousand, utterly distinctive of hue, but didn't always energise the sound to hit the back of the hall, though there were melting moments; that you don't need a big instrument to project was eventually demonstrated by Rowan Pierce as the merciful angel of the oratorio (no such reprieve in the horrid Old Testament). Jeanine De BiqueAllan Clayton's Jephtha has no chink in the vocal armoury; what a change from the too-frequent pipsqueak choral-scholar tenors we get in Handel (no apologies for again bringing up that phrase, for which one such once excoriated me). Nevertheless there was heartbreaking tenderness at the top of the range in the exquisite "Waft her, angels".

Countertenor Tim Mead produced ravishing sounds - none better in the business - as the slightly marginal lover Hamor, who resigns his Iphis to heavenly care as a perpetual virgin in the penultimate Quintet (yes, Quintet - how close to Mozart Handel might have come if he'd composed for another decade or so). That's capped, of course, by the final blaze: the work ultimately belongs to chorus and orchestra, and the loudest cheers at the end duly honoured them.

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