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Almost three hours of superb-sounding music...

ReviewThis recording 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. But there are almost three hours of superb-sounding music on just two CDs.

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.

© 2014 ConcertoNet.com, Michael Johnson

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