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Oxford revival for Greene

28 November 2014

by Roderic Dunnet


THE emergence of SJE Arts, a busy, energetic new music programme based at St John the Evangelist, east Oxford, has brought a remarkably imaginative series of concerts to the elaborate complex on Iffley Road.

For a century, it was home to the Cowley Fathers, the first religious community for men founded in the Anglican Church since the Reformation. The Anglo-Catholic theological college St Stephen's House transferred there from Norham Gardens in 1980.

The music that now flourishes there is diverse and even daring. Oriental song, edge-of repertoire composers such as Chausson, Granados, and Falla, and Francesco Scarlatti (younger brother of Alessandro) rub shoulders with Cage and Gershwin, the scintillatingly nostalgic folk singer Maddy Prior, or the marvellous young pianist Benjamin Grovenor. In fact, SJE's programme now rivals the celebrated Jacqueline du Pré music building at St Hilda's. You never know what you'll encounter next.

Where better to hear a real rarity, presented by an increasingly stylish ensemble, the Westminster-based Cantandum Choir, in association with Bampton Classical Opera? The conductor Gilly French has as much a gift for unearthing deserving, neglected choral repertoire as her company in west Oxfordshire is renowned for its genius in serving up, vitalising, and enlivening rare 18th-century operas.

Her judgement is usually impeccable. One approaches with some anxiety - unjustified, it turns out - the two-part oratorio Jephtha (1737) by Maurice Greene, organist and composer to George II's Chapel Royal; before that, Greene was organist at St Paul's, and latterly Professor of Music at Cambridge. Yet, how on earth could Greene, experienced though he became at oratorio (Deborah and Barak), masque (The Judgment of Hercules), opera Phoebe), and song (settings of Edmund Spenser's Amoretti), match up to the sublime masterpiece of the same title by Handel, a decade and a a half later?

But Greene - born just a year after Purcell's death - belonged to a period when home-grown English music was far from flaccid. Jephtha is an exciting work, vital in its military choruses: witness the champing 6/8 "Ye sons of Gilead"; "Be all the fame of Jephtha's name"; or the uplifting "God of Hosts", in which the choir takes up and echoes the prophet's aria late in Part I - a Handelian touch to which this compact choir brought thrilling resonance.

Less martial parts are both invocatory and agonised - Jephtha's rash promise of a human sacrifice that turns out to be his daughter has all the poignancy of Mozart's Idomeneo - achingly beautiful at times: "Thou sweetest joy"; or the moving recitative exchange between perplexed father and nervous daughter "O speak".

This is music not just of beta-plus standard: the dramatic and structural assurance holds up to the best of his Chapel Royal predecessor Croft and and the opera-skilled Arne, and challenges Handel himself. The libretto, by John Hoadly (1711-76), is more than serviceable. The transcription, made for the BBC in 1996 - perhaps the only other performance since Greeen's day - easily justifies this championing of the work.

There is a massive Overture, handled forcibly by Bampton's very reliable in-house period band. It is unfair to single out any from a clutch of fine instrumentalists, but the harpsichordist, James Johnstone, perhaps deserves mention. As Israel battles the easterly Ammonites (Jordanians), there is inevitably a bit of rumpty-tum, but the range of speeds and metres Greene employs, finely brought out by Gilly French's attentive pacings, and rhythmic control - some of the French-style double-dotting was magnificent, and the rocking strings for "O thou most dear" were especially poignant - yielded rich, varied drama and amazingly shrewd results.

In the two main roles, two engaging performers, the opera-versed tenor John-Colyn Gyeantey as the Prophet, and the Baroque-experienced Rosalind Coad as his seemingly doomed daughter, brought a different kind of expressiveness to conjure real flesh-and-blood characters. Gyeantey's switches from tender and reluctant to resignedly belligerent and to humanely appalled were intensely moving.

Some other satisfying touches came from two commentating Elders of Gilead, countertenor and baritone, Ben Williamson and Nicholas Merryweather. Both were excellently well-supported voices, a sort of cheerfully duetting subcommittee, whose verse interjections - "O think what Joy to him is given Who saves his native land from Woes! O think thou art the Hand of Heaven To thunder Vengeance on its Foes!" - give some idea of the desirability or otherwise of the libretto, notably strong on dramatic word-repetition. It is not up to the standard of Charles Jennens (Messiah) or Nahum Tate, maybe; but it is both cogent and considerable fun in its own way.




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