Tuesday 17 March 2020

Juditha resurgens: Hubert Parry's oratorio gets its first recording

Parry Judith; Sarah Fox, Kathryn Rudge, Toby Spence, Henry Waddington, Crouch End Festival Chorus, London Mozart Players, William Vann; Chandos
Parry Judith; Sarah Fox, Kathryn Rudge, Toby Spence, Henry Waddington, Crouch End Festival Chorus, London Mozart Players, William Vann; Chandos
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 March 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Parry's influential oratorio finally makes it to disc in a terrific performance from the forces who performed it last year at the Royal Festival Hall

The great success of the 1846 premiere of Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah at the Birmingham Festival of 1846 cast a long shadow on music in Britain. The structure of Mendelssohn's work became the model for a whole series of oratorios so that it is not surprising that when Hubert Parry was asked to write a work for the 1888 festival, Mendelssohn's work should figure in the calculations. Though Parry would write a significant amount of music for the theatre, he only every tried opera once and that essay, Guenever was turned down by Carl Rosa in 1886. Perhaps an element of frustrated opera composer can also be detected in the dramatic oratorio that Parry would write for Birmingham.

The resulting work, Judith was a success with numerous performances in the 19th century, this tailed off in the 20th and somehow Parry's reputation never really recovered. Whilst his symphonic output has been in the CD catalogues for some time and his songs are now being fully explored [see my reviews of his English Lyrics, Songs of Farewell and complete string quartets], his oratorios have been slower to be recovered. Thankfully this is beginning to change, and this new disc of Hubert Parry's Judith from Chandos records was recorded after the same forces gave a live performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 2019 [see my review].

For this premiere recording of Hubert Parry's Judith, William Vann conducts the London Mozart Players and the Crouch End Festival Chorus with Toby Spence as Manasseh, King of Israel, Kathryn Rudge as Meshullemeth, his wife, Sarah Fox as Judith, and Henry Waddington as the High Priest of Moloch and the Messenger of Holofernes.

Judith slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1614–18
Judith slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1614–18
Parry's sources for the libretto were both the story of Judith's beheading of Holofernes, a story which cropped up in works by Mozart and by Vivaldi, and also the story of King Manasseh who reintroduced polytheistic worship into Israel. In conflating the two, Parry was following the theories of an 18th century theologian, Humphrey Prideaux, but he also gave himself a story which had similar elements to Elijah, a ruler of Israel who has turned away from God, a test which is first failed but then a change happens, and a final exploit. There is sufficient difference between the two works to provide contrast, but in the overall structure of Judith we can detect the influence of Elijah. And Parry's text is highly sympathetic to his commissioners and their desire for a Biblical oratorio, the final scene which is devoted to 'The Exploit of Judith' keeps the attempted seduction and beheading off-stage.

In style, Parry does not completely avoid the English tendency towards the four-square, but his operatic leanings are also apparent and scenes such as the opening one have a such a clear dramatic urgency that you wish Parry had taken this further. Another, perhaps, surprising element to the work's make-up is Wagner; Parry's admiration for German music was profound and there are occasional elements here which seem to come from Wagner.

Judith's best claim to fame is that Meshullemeth's aria 'Long since in Egypt's plenteous land' gave rise to the hymn tune Repton ('Dear Lord and Father of all man kind'). This is, to a certain extent, a red herring as Parry's style is not naturally a melodious one. This is not a work where you come away singing the tunes, instead he provides a very flexible and highly dramatic structure, wonderfully coloured and inflected by the orchestral writing, creating a highly sophisticated piece. What you cannot fail to detect significant pre-echoes of Elgar's oratorios such as The Dream of Gerontius (1900), making it clear that for all Elgar's particular genius, his writing did not come out of nowhere. There are other pre-echoes too, it is clear that whilst Judith has not been around for a lot of the 20th century, many British composers were familiar with the work and the idiom!

We start with a large-scale orchestral introduction, grand, dramatic and almost a tone-poem. The first scene introduces us to King Manasseh (Toby Spence) and the worship of Moloch. The result, with its heavy reliance on the chorus, is almost an operatic scene, interweaving chorus, Spence's strong Manasseh, and Henry Waddington's trenchant High Priest. All clearly relish the scene's drama. The second scene, places Manasseh's queen, the dignified Kathryn Rudge, alongside her children (an impressive children's chorus), and a chorus of priests who call for the children's sacrifice to Moloch. Again, we feel almost in opera. Whilst Rudge's performance of the famous aria is beautifully well modulated and dignified, you cannot help feeling that the piece lay just slightly too low for her. When Sarah Fox's Judith finally appears, she is dignified and powerful with a nice degree of radiance.

The scene of sacrifice of the children returns us to Spence's firm voiced, Manasseh but it is the chorus who really drive things along. The entry of Judith clearly shows Fox's relish at the words (which are terrific here) and she really spits them out. The act ends with the coming of the Assyrians, and here Parry abandons any sense of opera and creates a large scale choral scene, with the people's calls to Moloch which are answered with silence (with its strong echoes of Elijah).

Between Acts One and Two, we get an intermezzo, The Repentance of Manasseh, a thoughtful aria in which Spence nicely captures the mood of the King who turns back to God.

Parry: Judith - Kathryn Rudge, Sarah Fox, William Vann, London Mozart Players, 2019 (Photo Roger Thomas)
Parry: Judith - Kathryn Rudge, Sarah Fox, William Vann,
London Mozart Players, at Royal Festival Hall 2019
(Photo Roger Thomas, from Classical Iconclast blog)
Act Two deals with Judith's beheading of Holofernes, though Parry's text always treats this obliquely, we never get a scene where someone describes  things with relish, alas! The Return of Manasseh brings the repentant King alongside his wife and Judith, to create a striking trio as the memorable climax to another complex choral scene. Rudge's aria here is, unfortunately, less melodically memorable than her one of Part Two, and Spence's commitment cannot disguise the fact that his solo moment has a rather wandering nature to his melody line. Waddington's trenchant messenger stirs things up, and Sarah Fox's noble Judith engenders some considerable excitement as she commits herself to her exploit.

The final scene opens with another strikingly expressive orchestral prelude, the scene develops into another striking interweaving of orchestra, chorus and solo from Toby Spence. With Judith's return, Fox shows wonderfully gleaming tone, and again great relish for the words 'his headless body'. And the subsequent chorus is sung with further relish by the Crouch End Festival Chorus, followed by a lively celebratory aria for Spence, sung with fine heroic tone. The work ends with a chorus of rejoicing from Judith and the chorus, where Parry returns to noble mood.

All concerned commit themselves to this unfamiliar music with wonderful energy. The soloists all give strong performances, and form a fine ensemble combining with chorus and orchestra, recognising this is the type of work which is greater than the sum of its parts. The Crouch End Festival Chorus (musical director David Temple) are terrific, they throw themselves into the challenge and the drama of Parry's choral writing and often it is the chorus which really drives the drama along. The London Mozart Players gives superb support, and also come into its own in the orchestral preludes.

There are more neglected 19th century oratorios out there waiting to explored, but we must be grateful for William Vann for having the vision and energy [see my interview with William] to bring this performance off, and for creating such a striking recorded record of the work.

Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) - Judith, or The Regeneration of Manasseh (1888)
Manasseh, King of Israel - Toby Spence (tenor)
Meshullemeth, his wife - Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano)
Manasseh's children - children's chorus
Judith - Sarah Fox (soprano)
High Priest of Moloch/Messenger of Holofernes - Henry Waddington (bass-baritone)
Crouch End Festival Chorus (musical director David Temple)
London Mozart Players (leader Ruth Rogers)
William Whitehead (organ)
William Vann (conductor)
 Recorded at the Church of St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, NW11
CHANDOS CHSA 5268(2) 2CDs [61.40, 69.32]

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