Magazine article The Spectator

A High Price to Pay

Magazine article The Spectator

A High Price to Pay

Article excerpt

The first Proms performance of Handel's final oratorio Jephtha struck me as oddly muted, both in the Albert Hall and when I listened to it again at home on DAT. For a Mackerras performance it was lacking in vigour in the many warlike and cheerful items, and depth in the tragic or accepting ones.

He dedicated it to the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, and, in the pauses between Parts II and III of the work, he delivered himself of some strange reflections on the part-line from Pope's Essay on Man with which Part II closes: `Whatever is, is right.' He tried to put those words into context by instancing the previous day's fatal accident, but that seemed better put, for those who need to understand things in these terms, by the opening lines of that chorus: `How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees!' Is it any longer possible to perform the whole piece, the chorus I mean, with its progression from bewilderment to cosmic affirmation, with the required degree of conviction? The work itself enacts the same progression, taking a ghastly Old Testament story and interpreting it in Enlightenment terms, very much as Mozart was to do not many years later with Idomeneo.

The recoil I experience from the story of Jephtha is not repeated with Mozart's grave masterpiece, and that led me to wonder how much that is due to what seems to me the undeniable superiority of Mozart's inspiration, and how much to the fact that Handel's work has a religious dimension, though perhaps less imposingly than its predecessor Theodora, whereas Mozart capable, I feel, of greater religious depth when stirred to it - is presenting a mythological tale which makes no direct demands on our world view as Handel does.

Mozart gives us tragedy averted, though Idomeneo is pervaded by tragic feeling. Jephtha offers something of the same; but the averting of Iphis's death is at the price of her perpetual virginity, a high price though joyfully accepted by all the principals. The God on whose behalf the Angel in Part III negotiates these terms is the one who will eventually become the first person of the Trinity. His unlimited goodness is ever more emphatically proclaimed, though He never ceases to move in mysterious ways. For Handel, however, He seems to have arranged things for the best in the short as well as the long term, and that is why so much of Jephtha is jolly music. In fact, its gaiety is more convincing than much of its pain.

The alarm of Iphis's mother, very robustly delivered on this occasion by Felicity Palmer, belongs to the world of the secular oratorios, or the vengeance-operas. …

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