The two entirely separate sound worlds of the Royal Albert Hall and BBC Radio 3 are thrown into stark contrast when the Proms stages a Handel oratorio. In the vast hall, much of the orchestral detail is lost, and unless the soloists are exceptional, their contributions can be muddy and indistinct. Turn on the radio, however, and audio engineering restores the balance and removes the bathroom acoustic.

Allan Clayton and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Allan Clayton and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Thanks to BBC iPlayer it’s now possible to listen again to a performance and perhaps catch what you missed in the hall, though it’s no guarantee that things will be more intelligible, even when that consummate Handelian Richard Egarr is in charge. While he can ensure that the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus are on top form, he can do little about the soloists’ diction. Last night, for Jephtha, Handel’s last and perhaps greatest oratorio, the disparity in principals’ audibility couldn’t have been greater.

Tenor Allan Clayton, as Jephtha, the father who discovers he must sacrifice his beloved daughter in return for his victory in battle, was bold and razor-sharp in his delivery, easily overcoming the deficiencies of the hall, though perhaps lacking the emotional intensity to really convey the “rack of wild despair” on which he finds himself. “Waft her, angels, through the sky”, the top number in the piece, was beautifully sung by Clayton but, disappointingly, Egarr’s hurried tempo deprived it of its truly devastating quality.

Soprano Jeanine De Bique, as Iphis, apparently faced death with remarkable equanimity, not that we would have known as virtually every word she sang was inaudible, so poor was her diction. Her voice is packed with interesting colours but it lacks the heft necessary to to get across the cavernous hall, a problem also for Hilary Summers, as her mother Storgé, her rich warm contralto often lost in the texture of the orchestra in her big aria, “Scenes of horror, scenes of woe”. No such problems for Rowan Pierce as the Angel, her bright soprano cutting through the air like a knife through butter.

Tim Mead and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Tim Mead and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Some of the most beautiful singing of the evening came from countertenor Tim Mead as Hamor, suitor to Iphis. His miraculous top register, clean and clear as pure water, sailed out into the hall in his early aria “Dull delay, in piercing anguish” and in his ravishing duet with Iphis, “These labours past, how happy we”.

No audibility problems for American bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum, as Zebul, a leader of the Israelites. He sang with a natural, easy authority and looked so striking, sporting a great lion’s mane of tumbling curly locks as though he has stepped directly out of this Old Testament story.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra was on excellent form, responding to Egarr’s demanding direction with élan. He is such an interesting conductor to watch, directing from the harpsichord astride a saddle-like stool from which he can leap up and pace the platform, urging on the players, often with his reading glasses in one hand. The chorus singing was superb; crisp, alert and dramatic, particularly in “How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees” when they repeatedly hammer out the line “Whatever is, is right”, a dark acceptance that none of us can escape our fate.


***11