Handel's Judas Maccabaeus
was his response to the Duke
of Cumberland's campaigns in Scotland following 1745. It initiated
a period of tub-thumping oratorios which both responded to the
country's mood. It also helped restore Handel's finances after
his attempts at widening his season had failed to attract sufficient
audience. Judas Maccabaeus
was popular during Handel's
lifetime and remained popular with choral societies. Though there
have been modern recordings, neither of the two current prime
contenders (from Nicholas McGegan and Robert King) is quite ideal.
The work requires a degree of swagger and bravura - tub-thumping
again - which does not always sit easily with the modern period
performance movement. Various commentators seem to agree that
Charles Mackerras's recording, previously available on Archiv,
is the best, but this does not seem to be around at the moment.
This new recording comes from a Boston-based group founded by
Romanian conductor Valentin Radu. It combines a 40 strong choir,
30 strong period band and children’s choir, recorded live.
With live recording you sacrifice an element of perfection in
exchange for the visceral thrill of a real concert event with
its inherent drama. At least that is the theory. Unfortunately
on this disc that doesn't quite happen. Radu gets a creditable
performance from his forces but the overall tone is a bit plodding
and worthy. There are lovely moments, but the performance never
quite takes off. I did wonder whether Radu had much sympathy
The choir made a goodly sound especially in the more vigorous
passages, though it is a little rough at times. More problematically
the recording does not seem to capture them at their best. In
fact, if you listened to this recording blind you could easily
believe it was made quite some years ago. As captured by the
microphones, the choir makes something of a big blowsy sound.
They appear to be enunciating words, but these just don’t
come over very well - always a fault in oratorio. Both the choir
and the orchestra have moments of uncertainty of ensemble, not
unexpected in a live recording. These issues of ensemble also
apply to the opening overture.
Regarding the soloists, Timothy Bentch has what appears to be
a pleasant lyric tenor voice, which he works rather too hard
in the title role. He has a tendency to push his upper register
and his runs are effortful and uneven; I kept wishing he would
relax a little. Whilst there are moments when he brings out the
dramatic feel of the part, generally Bentch’s performance
lacks the bright bravura that this role requires. In contrast,
Ed Bara as Simon displays a fine, even and flexible bass/baritone
voice. Bara voices his runs fluidly and fluently and contributes
some of the best singing on the disc.
Neither Andrea Lauren Brown nor Dana Wilson, as the Israelite
Woman and Man, really rises above the ordinary. Brown’s
technique is a bit choppy with a less than ideal sense of line.
She impressed when I heard her in Bernhard Lang’s I
, so perhaps her sympathies lie in other areas.
Wilson seems to be struggling with a part which sits a little
low for his voice.
Radu’s tempi are generally on the steady side and he cannot
quite rid the performance of a tendency to plod. There are good
moments and his singers and players seem to be working hard for
him, but an overall sense of dramatic flow is lacking.
The CD booklet includes an article on the oratorio plus the full
libretto in English.
Issuing live performances on disc is always a little risky and
here the risks do not appear to have paid off. Whilst neither
Nicholas McGegan nor Robert King are ideal, both combine fine
performances with strong soloists. I would advise trying to get
one of these.