Friday 21 September 2018

Juditha resurgens: William Vann on reviving Parry's 'Judith'

Judith slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1614–18
Judith slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1614–18
On 3 April 2019, William Vann (artistic director of the London English Song Festival, and music director of the Royal Hospital Chelsea) will be conducting a performance of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry's first oratorio Judith at the Royal Festival Hall, with soloists Eleanor Dennis, Kathryn Rudge, Toby Spence and Henry Waddington, the Crouch End Festival Chorus and the London Mozart Players. Amazingly, this will be the first full London performance of the piece since 1889 (there was a performance with piano at the Royal College of Music in the 1970s). Given that the revival of Parry's music has been gaining strength for some time, it seems strange that the oratorio has languished so much. I met up with Will recently to find out more about his quest to restore Judith.

He first became aware of the oratorio at a Vaughan Williams Society AGM when there was a talk on the origins of hymn tunes, including Repton ('Dear Lord and Father of all mankind') which was originally an aria from Parry's Judith, and the original aria was performed as part of the talk. Will became intrigued and wondered if anyone was performing it. That is when he found out how much the piece had languished, though not done in London since 1889 there were a lot of performances until the 1920s, then things tail off and the last major performance seems to have been in Wales in 1951.

Hubert Parry
Hubert Parry
Parry is rather an interesting figure, studying music and then going into Lloyds, but then returning to music and becoming involved in the creation of the Royal College of Music. Thus, with Stanford, he was responsible for creating a whole generation of English composers, RVW, Howells, Gurney, Ireland. And Will feels that you can hear presages of these younger composers in passages of Parry's own music.

The vocal score of Judith is freely available so Will  was able to download it, and he also discovered that the work had been performed in Canada in 2015 [you can see the performance on YouTube], by the Pax Christie Chorale. As the original Novello parts were falling to pieces, the choir commissioned a new set of parts and the musicologist Jeremy Dibble (Parry's biographer) was involved. The choir has re-edited the parts since and has licensed them for Will's performance. When we meet, he was planning to go to the Royal College of Music to look at Parry's original manuscript which is held there. This is in Parry's own writing, clearly a fine copy, yet it has also clearly been used for performances as a conducting score!

Will started running through sections with choir, and with soloists (and has recorded a video of an aria with soprano Eleanor Dennis which is now on YouTube). He feels that it is really good music, coming very much out of the Mendelssohn oratorio tradition with big scenes and arias, slightly operatic in parts. Will comments that there is some really roof-raising stuff with stirring chorus writing.

The work seems to have fallen out of favour with the critics when it first came out, perhaps because there were one or two weak performances or perhaps the style seemed somewhat out-dated.  Though, it has to be admitted that Parry is not a natural tunesmith, 'Dear Lord and Father of all mankind' notwithstanding.

It does need quite big forces, there will be a choir of around 90 from the Crouch End Festival Chorus, though the orchestra is not huge, Will describes it as somewhere between chamber and full orchestra. They are performing it at the Royal Festival Hall partly because the piece has an organ part, and though it is 'sort of optional' Will feels that it would be nice to have it. The soloists have quite big dramatic roles, particularly the title role which will be sung be Eleanor Dennis. Will feels that Judith suits Dennis' voice, dramatic yet youthful.

The performance is being given by Will's London English Song Festival (LESF), it is a big step for them though they had been thinking about doing something bigger for a while. There are more people involved in the project than with any of LESF's other projects. It was crucial to get enough financial backers, and they were lucky enough to get a good response, and are 50% of the way there with the funding.

All being well, the same forces will be recording the work after the performance. Will feels that to do Judith justice, the work requires a studio performance and it also seemed risky to do a live recording of such an unknown piece. Will hopes that the performance will capture the imagination of the public too, as large-scale choral performances seem to do so in a way the song does not.

Before then, Will is giving a concert, as pianist, at the Wigmore Hall on 23 September 2018 with Louise Alder (soprano) and Nicky Spence (tenor) performing songs by Parry and his contemporary Stanford, by Brahms (with whom Parry wanted to study), by Sterndale Bennett (a friend of Schumann's and very much the older generation), and by the younger generation, RVW, Howells, Ireland, Frank Bridge and Holst.

Hubert Parry - Judith: 3 April 2019 at the Royal Festival Hall, William Vann conducts the Crouch End Festival Chorus, London Mozart Players, Eleanor Dennis (soprano), Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spence (tenor), Henry Waddington (bass) - full details from the South Bank website.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Mahler distilled: Iain Farrington and Rozana Madylus in "On Angels' Wings" (★★★½)  - concert review
  • A pastoral delight: Mozart's Bastien und Bastienne in its original version from The Mozartists  (★★★½)  - concert review
  • The other Cinderella: Bampton Classical Opera's revival of Isouard's Cendrillon (★★★½) - opera review
  • More than just Haydn: cultural revival at Schloss Esterházy, Eisenstadt  - feature
  • Riveting and remarkable: Anna Prohaska & Eric Schneider in An der Front at Herbst Gold in Eisenstadt (★★★★★) - concert review 
  • Haydn at Eisenstadt: Armida at Herbst Gold festival Schloss Esterházy (★★★★) - Opera review
  • From Haydn and Elgar to Rap and Grime: Matthew O'Keeffe and Brixton Chamber Orchestra  - interview
  • Music, puppets & poetry: Goldfield Productions' Hansel & Gretel - a nightmare in eight scenes  - interview
  • In search of the Great American Opera, the strange case of Samuel Barber's Vanessa - feature
  • Essential Listening: Rossini's Semiramide revealed in a new complete recording from Opera Rara  (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Practical & working composer: Vaughan Williams choral premieres from Royal Hospital, Chelsea  (★★★½) - CD review
  • Distracting opera for distracted times: The Second Violinist (★★★½) - Opera review
  • A journey through time and music: 12 Ensemble at the Barbican, on tour and a debut disc  - feature
  • An imaginative Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress from British Youth Opera (★★★★½)  - Opera review
  •  Home


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