Music review: The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, SCO Chorus and Richard Egarr, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The plot of Handel’s last great Biblical oratorio Jephtha might seem far-fetched in its comforting neatness. In exchange for God’s help in defeating the Ammonites, the Israelite commander Jephtha vows to sacrifice the first person he meets on his return home, then discovers to his horror that that person is his own daughter Iphis. He will not go back on his word, and Iphis nobly accepts her death, but is saved by the intervention of an angel.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, SCO Chorus and Richard Egarr, Royal Albert Hall, London ****

The work itself tells a less bland story. Handel’s sight was failing, and he was facing up to his own mortality; by altering his librettist’s key line ‘What God in ordains is right’ to ‘Whatever is, is right’, and by making out of it a musical climax, he instinctively stresses the fragility of life and his own personal struggle. And as the SCO Chorus sings this line under Richard Egarr’s direction, the point is hammered home: the words are spat out with jabbing fury.

The work opens in the sunshine of victory, and descends into dark despair before re-emerging into the light; its incandescent changes of colour were vividly rendered in this performance, with the soloists mostly outstanding. Soprano Janine de Bique had a small and rather too contained sound as Iphis, but her big arias, notably ‘Happy they’, were well-taken; contralto Hilary Summers, as the hero’s mother Storge, brought velvet smoothness to her forebodings, while tenor Allan Clayton nobly delivered the title role.

The perfect diction of Cody Quattlebaum’s tribal leader Zebul reached all corners of the vast auditorium, soprano Rowan Pierce’s Angel made her liberating announcement with vernal freshness, and Tim Mead, as Iphis’s paramour Hamor, reminded us why he is now Britain’s most resplendently accomplished counter-tenor. The chorus had a burnished tone throughout. - Michael Church