Thursday 4 April 2019

A stirring revival: Hubert Parry's Judith in a triumphant performance from William Vann, the Crouch End Festival Chorus and London Mozart Players at the Royal Festival Hall

Hubert Parry
Hubert Parry
Charles Hubert H. Parry Judith; Sarah Fox, Kathryn Rudge, Toby Spence, Henry Waddington, Crouch End Festival Chorus, London Mozart Players, William Vann; London English Song Festival at the Royal Festival Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 April 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
The first London revival of Parry's oratorio since the 19th century shows a striking piece of writing, unworthy of the neglect, in a stirring and confident performance.

For all the revival of interest in Parry's music, his large scale choral pieces do not seem to have sparked the same interest as his symphonies, songs and other smaller scale pieces (the same is true of Stanford, many of whose operas are still languishing). Whilst Parry's oratorio Job has made it to disc [on Hyperion] it is surprising to find that not only has Judith never been recorded, it had not been performed in London since the 19th century! William Vann and the London English Song Festival have now filled this lacuna, assembling an admirable team of performers and filling the Royal Festival Hall with Parry's powerful music and revealing Judith to be a fascinating and, at times, powerful work that deserves a place in the choral oratorio canon.

Presented by the London English Song Festival at the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday 3 April 2019, Sir Charles Hubert Parry's oratorio Judith was conducted by William Vann with the Crouch End Festival Chorus and the London Mozart Players, with Sarah Fox as Judith, Kathryn Rudge as Meshullemeth, Toby Spence as Manesseh and Henry Waddington as High Priest of Moloch & Messenger of Holofernes.

Parry's Judith was written in 1888 for the Birmingham Triennial Festival, the festival which had commissioned Mendelssohn's Elijah and which would commission similar works from Sullivan, Gounod, Bruch and Dvorak, as well as Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius. Parry seems to have chosen the subject matter himself and written the libretto, based on the bible.

Whilst Judith is the notional heroine, the work's subtitle is The Regeneration of Manasseh and Parry is as interested in the Jewish King Manesseh, who has gone back to the worship of Moloch, and the oratorio explores his return to Jehovah with Judith's exploit chopping of the head of Holofernes (the Captain of the Assyrian army threatening Israel) only a small part. In fact, the libretto is remarkably coy, and we see nothing of Judith's seduction of Holofernes, or the removal of his head, though Judith's entry on a high B flat on her return from the Assyrian camp indicates that something striking has gone on.

Another problem with the work is that, whilst the story of Judith and Holofernes is known, the more general background is not. Manesseh is not a recognisable character. The libretto assumes that we know what is going on; the Assyrians attack and destroy Jerusalem, taking Manesseh captive, then release him so that the Jews return to Jerusalem, and then attack again. This means that we have a sequence of events which doesn't quite make sense, and any performance of the work will need to work hard to make the drama stick.

Whilst Parry writes four big solo roles (which require strong dramatic voices), it is the chorus which engages the attention, both in terms of the amount of music for the chorus and the strength of the choral writing. I gather that the singers of the Crouch End Festival Chorus have enjoyed rehearsing the work, and this is understandable, it is a big and rewarding sing and from this performance the oratorio deserves to be on every choral society's list.

One of the reasons for the work's interest and definitely a factor in its deserving future revivals is Parry's orchestrations, he is not content to let the orchestra chug happily under the vocal and choral lines. Instead the orchestral writing is a sophisticated as anything in his symphonies and the orchestral contribution really complements the vocal rather than just supporting it. The result is some richly varied and tellingly emotive writing, and listen to any few bars and Parry's fingerprints are all over them.

Whilst each of the soloists do get big set pieces, Parry's writing tends more to creating large-scale structures using a sort of dramatic arioso combining soloists, chorus and orchestra into striking sequences which move away from quasi-opera into something more abstract. One of the most striking sequences is the opening of the third scene of part two, where Parry interweaves a choral march for the Watchmen with Manasseh's fine aria as he awaits the return of Judith. You feel that the work is closer to Handel's Israel in Egypt than dramatic oratorios like Belshazzar or Mendelssohn's Elijah.

Sarah Fox made a controlled Judith, singing with lyricism and nobility. Fox brought dramatic vibrancy to the thrilling recitative with which Judith announces her return with the head of Holofernes. I wished that Fox had brought a little of this fire to her arias in the first half where she berates Manasseh and the Jews for turning their back on Jehovah, but she was finely dignified and beautifully musical.

As the King's wife Meshullemeth, Kathryn Rudge got the aria on which the famous hymn Dear Lord and Father of all mankind was based. Rudge sang the aria with tender beauty and serious intent, helping to flesh out a rather underwritten character. As her husband, Toby Spence brought plenty of confident, heroic tone to the role of Manesseh, agreeing to the god Moloch's demand for the sacrifice of Manesseh's own children with firm commitment. But the core of the role is the intermezzo Parry puts between the two parts where Manesseh, in Assyrian captivity, turns back to Jehovah. The aria is, frankly, a bit too wordy, but Spence made a strong case for its rather interesting, wandering melody, and then gave us a terrific dramatic accompagnato in the following seen with his prayer 'Behold how great is the mercy of our God'.

Henry Waddington played the roles of the High Priest of Moloch in part one, and Holofernes' messenger in part two, and in this latter role got a terrific dramatic scene where the orchestra played a big role too.

The Crouch End Festival Chorus grasped every opportunity that Parry gave them, singing with plenty of admirably firm tone and superb commitment. They certainly did not sound as if the choir had never sung the piece before, which is a great credit to them and their chorus master, David Temple. And by the end, it seemed as if they were having the time of their lives. I must give a special mention to the small children's chorus, 12 of them including soloist Lydia South, who sang the role of Manesseh and Meshullemeth's children with confidence and aplomb.

The London Mozart Players brought out the sheer diversity of Parry's orchestral writing, whether in the works overture and orchestral preludes, or in the larger choral/vocal numbers. As I have said, there is great richness in the way Parry writes for the orchestra and the players made it sound as if they had every sympathy with Parry's symphonic writing.

William Vann drew a stirring, confident and sophisticated performance from his huge forces (Parry's orchestration includes organ and, at crucial moments, tam tam), letting the stirring moment fill the hall and making Parry's sophisticated orchestral writing count. He seemed to have developed a fine relationship with the chorus and drew a confident performance from them.

William Vann and his forces will be taking the work into the recording studio to produce a recording for Chandos, which means that we will get further opportunities to get to know the work better. It certainly does not deserve to slumber for another hundred years, and any major chorus looking for an interesting new challenge should consider the work.

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1 comment:

  1. I am very Sorry I wasn't able to go to this. It clearly deserves more frequent exposure.


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