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Performances

Maurice Greene (Attributed to Joseph Highmore)
10 Nov 2014

Maurice Greene’s Jephtha

Maurice Greene (1696-1755) had a highly successful musical career. Organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a position to which he was elected when he was just 22 years-old, he later became organist of the Chapel Royal, Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge and, from 1735, Master of the King’s Music.

Maurice Greene: Jephtha, Bampton Classical Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Maurice Greene (Attributed to Joseph Highmore)

 

Greene is better known for his church music and anthems than for his contributions to repertoire of a dramatic or theatrical nature, but he did however produce a small number of oratorios, pastorals and festival and moral odes.

Greene’s Jephtha (which was his second oratorio, after The Song of Deborah and Barak of 1732) was first performed in 1737, most probably in the small tavern, The Devil, near Temple Bar where meetings of the Apollo Society (founded by Greene and the Italian musician Bononcini as a rival to the Academy of Ancient Music after an infamous dispute between Bononcini and Handel, and named after the tavern’s famous ‘Apollo Room’) were held. Presumably the work had more than one performance, for it is known that the soprano part for Jephtha’s daughter was re-written for alto at a later date. The work then languished in obscurity until a 1997 performance, given and broadcast by the BBC to mark the 300 th anniversary of Greene’s birth a few months previously. For the latter occasion, Peter Lynan prepared a performing edition, which was used here by Bampton Classical Opera. (And, it is to Lynan’s informative programme article that I am indebted for some of the contextual information about the career of the little-documented Greene here presented.)

Greene set a libretto by John Hoadly (1711-76), the son of Benjamin Hoadly, Bishop of Bangor (later of Winchester) and Chaplain to the Prince of Wales. Jephtha’s story, given in the Book of Judges, is a rather grim Old Testament tale of torment and sacrifice. The early Hebrew leader is recalled from exile to lead his people against their enemies, the Ammonites; in return for victory for the Israelites, Jephtha vows to sacrifice the first thing that he meets upon returning home. With horrid and inevitable irony, when he returns triumphant he is met by his beloved daughter. Jephtha explains to his daughter that he must comply with his vow and she stoically accepts her fate: the final chorus tells that each year Israel’s daughters will lament in her honour.

Hoadly follows the biblical story closely. (In 1751, when Handel set Jephtha’s story his librettist Morell contrived a quasi-happy ending which saw Jephtha’s daughter spared and her life devoted spiritual contemplation and solitude. In contrast, Greene’s sacrificial daughter willingly accepts her fate and asks only, ‘Let me awhile defer my Fate/ And to the mountains fly;/ There to bewail my Virgin state/ And then return — and die.’ Some have suggested that there is a political context for Greene’s choice of story focusing as it does on the choice between national and personal fortune that a patriotic leader must make, thereby developing a theme which was widely discussed in England during the 1730s and 40s.

Hoadly’s text is fairly static, but it presents some powerful situations and emotional of emotion, and Greene was not un-tuned to the potential for musical characterisation and affekt. The high points come in the second act which affords greater opportunity for heart-wringing and human sacrifice. In this appealing performance by Bampton Classical Opera — probably only the second performance since the time of the work’s composition — the expressive impact and charm of Greene’s score was skilfully and engagingly communicated.

The role of Jephtha was sung by John-Colyn Gyeantey. The tenor’s confident high range was instantly apparent, and although his voice seemed a little tight and lacking in support initially, as he warmed up and relaxed, Gyeantey’s lyricism and expressive phrasing came to the fore. His Act 1 aria, ‘Pity soothing melts the Soul’ was graceful and gentle, and his tone warmed still further in the extensive, low-lying lines of ‘Thou sweetest joy’ in Act 2. As the First Elder of Gilread, Nicholas Merryweather embodied imperious stateliness, making every world of text clearly audible. Merryweather’s baritone was rich and strong, with dark tone, but unfortunately it rather overwhelmed Ben Williamson’s Second Elder, whose countertenor struggled to project in their recitative duets. It was not until Williamson’s aria, ‘Against these new alarms’, that we were able to enjoy his flexible phrasing and silky legato, and admire his strong upper register.

Soprano Rosalind Coad performed the only female solo role, as Jephtha’s unfortunate daughter. In 2013 Coad won the Oxford Lieder Young Artist Platform Award and was also awarded 2nd prize in the Bampton Classical Opera Competition, and here she revealed a lucid, strong soprano which immediately convinced that such acclaim was deserved. She floated lightly through the more elaborate numbers — cascading in unison with the violins in the Act 2 ‘Ah! My foreboding fears — and sang with astonishing delicacy and breath control in the arias of pathos and tenderness, such as ‘if I thy Grief, thy Tears employ’. When Coad was joined by the chorus soloist in ‘Awake each joyful strain’, the female voices blended pleasing.

The singers were accompanied on period instruments by the Bampton Classical Players, led by Adrian Chandler and conducted with unfussy precision by Gilly French. The slow overture had stately gravitas, the heavy dotted rhythms perhaps portentous of the tragedy to come, while in the following Allegro there was much characterful violin playing supported by a strong, supple bass line, while the woodwind interjections cut cleanly through the vigorous string interplay. Greene employs some interesting harmonic juxtapositions and modulations and these were judiciously emphasised.

I was impressed by the agility of the violin playing, and by the range of colours and textures achieved by the small string section. The dialogues between instruments and voices — in the accompanied recitatives and in the arias — were vivid and melodious. The strings were kept busy but the wind contributed chiefly in the choruses (of which there are several in each of the two acts), offering a pleasing contrast of colour in, for example the chorus ‘Thou, universal Lord’. The recorders of Joel Raymond and Oonagh Lee were poignantly sweet during the Act 2 duet, ‘Awake joyful strain’. Paul Sharp and Simon Monday provided punchy trumpet interjections in the closing Act 1 chorus and in the Symphony which begins Act 2. The Players intonation was consistently good.

Throughout the oratorio, the continuo accompaniments of James Johnstone (harpsichord) and Gareth Deats (cello) gave the singers clear, sympathetic support, but were also not themselves without vivacity and imagination. (As was particularly evident during the rapid passagework which accompanies Jephtha’s first Act 2 aria, Deats was not unduly troubled by the strapping on his left-hand little finger!).

Perhaps the venue was less than helpful to the singers’ balance and projection. The nave is high and while the choral singing of Cantandam was joyful and robust at times one felt that some of the tone was lost in the vaulted arches. I wondered too whether placing the soloists in the centre rather than to the side might have improved the balance.

But these are small quibbles. Richard Graves, writing in the Musical Times in 1955, said of Greene, ‘So many of his works lie almost totally forgotten. When we at last turn to them, we shall find them full of unexpected beauty and charm, and as fresh as on the day they were written’. Such freshness and charm were pleasingly evident in Bampton Classical Opera’s performance of Jephtha; one wonders what further delights might be unearthed from among Greene’s neglected oeuvre.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Jephtha, John-Colyn Gyeantey; Daughter, Rosalind Coad; First Elder of Gilead, Nicholas Merryweather; Second Elder of Gilead, Ben Williamson; Conductor, Gilly French; Cantandum; Bampton Classical Players (on period instruments). SJE Arts at St John the Evangelist, Oxford. Sunday 2nd November 2014.

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