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London Handel Festival - Handel, Judas Maccabaeus: Soloists, London Handel Singers, London Handel Orchestra, directed from the fortepiano by Laurence Cummings, St.George’s Church, Hanover Square, 30.3.2006 (ME)



This performance of one of Handel’s greatest works was the inaugural concert of the 2006 London Handel Festival, a Festival which has grown in artistic stature year on year whilst still continuing to exist from hand to mouth in financial terms. The programme this time is an exceptionally enticing one, including such delectable prospects as a St John Passion on Good Friday, in which the Evangelist will be sung by the rising star Robert Murray, a concert of arias from Jephtha and Tamerlano, sung by the leading Handel tenor John Mark Ainsley on April 24th, a fascinating evening of music for trumpet and voice based around the life of John Grano, Handel’s trumpeter, ending with ‘Or la Tromba’ on May 10th, and a full staging of Tolomeo at the RCM on May 15th, 17th and 18th. Most of the events take place in the glorious setting of St George’s, Hanover Square, where Handel worshipped, just around the corner from the house where he lived – and if the standard is anything like that achieved in this evening’s performance, audiences are in for a real treat.

Judas Maccabeus was even more popular than Messiah during the composer’s lifetime: first heard at Covent Garden in 1747, its eponymous hero and various Israelites, by turns exquisitely lyrical and swaggeringly martial, tell the story of the rebellion of the Maccabees against the Seleucids, incidentally supplying suitably triumphal music to accompany the patriotic feelings engendered by the Duke of Cumberland’s victory over the Jacobites. This version was given in the German translation by the poet Johann Joachim Eschenberg, as used in the score owned by the Halifax Choral Society and incorporating additional wind accompaniments attributed to Mozart: it’s a finely poetic one which turns the original’s frequent oddities of phrase into far more elegant expression, with substitutions such as ‘Fromme Tränen’ for ‘Pious orgies’. Whether or not the additions to the scoring are by Mozart, they do have some of the flavour of his version of Messiah, although there are times when one wonders if some of the substitutions really work, as in the aria ‘With honour let desert be crown’d’ where Handel’s trumpet is replaced by the oboe.

There were very few negative aspects to this performance, although the choral singing sagged a little here and there and there were one or two ragged patches in the orchestra. Laurence Cummings shaped the music with loving skill, allowing the singers room to shape their lines and deliver their characterizations with confidence. The part of Judas is one of the pinnacles of the tenor repertoire: this is a role which the likes of Fritz Wünderlich and Ernst Haefliger have made their own on disc, and Andrew Kennedy is very young to be singing it – at present there are times when his interpretation tends towards the intimacy of Lieder rather than the more public art of oratorio, but his singing is fluent and confident, and he displays a truly heartening sense of genuine Handelian style. ‘Bewaffne dich mit Muth, mein Arm’ (‘Call forth thy powers, my soul) began quite reticently but by the repeat he had found his tone and went on to give striking renditions of ‘Wie eitel ist’ (‘How vain is man’) and ‘Süss ist das Lied’ (‘Sweet flow the strains’).  His singing of ‘Blast die Trommet!’ (Sound an alarm!) might not wake the dead as Haefliger does, but it certainly summons up the blood with its incisive diction, its fluent passagework and its heroic ring. Another notable performance by this fine young singer.

Fflur Wyn and Catherine Denley both sang beautifully as the Israelitish Woman and Man: the soprano shaped the lovely lines of ‘Fromme Tränen’ with skill and gave a very fine account of the wonderful but difficult ‘Dann tönt der laut’ und Harfe klang’ (‘So shall the Lute and Harp awake’) Denley was standing in for Rebecca Outram at short notice, and she managed to sound as though the part had been hers from the start – I have long admired her even, warm tone and musical phrasing, so it was lovely to hear her sing ‘O Freiheit!’ Colin Campbell was another late substitution, for Christopher Sheldrake, but he was less successful, mainly because his fairly fine-grained bass does not have quite the ring of authority or the sonorous quality needed for some of Simon’s music, though he made a noble attempt at ‘Auf! Heer des Herrn’ (‘Arm, arm, ye brave’).

One of the most memorable moments of the evening came when the counter-tenor Timothy Travers-Brown sang the Israelitish Priest’s aria ‘Jehovah, sieh’ (‘Father of Heav’n’) from the pulpit, the ‘candle’ he held aloft seeming to echo the lines’ reference to the ‘Festival of Lights.’ He sang it gracefully and touchingly, with a real sense of the import of the words. That so relatively small a part could be so finely sung is indicative of the standards to be expected from the London Handel Festival, and I warmly recommend the events of the coming weeks: such a combination of glorious music, fine soloists and a setting that has few equals for its evocative atmosphere (check out the gold-embossed list of every Churchwarden the place has had since its dedication in 1724, and ponder on where Handel himself sat at prayer) ought to make London music lovers proud.



Melanie Eskenazi




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