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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Judas Maccabaeus (1746) (107.47)
Judas - Timothy Bentch (tenor)
Simon - Ed Bara (bass)
Israelitish Woman - Andrea Lauren Brown (soprano)
Priest - Tatyana Rashovsky (mezzo)
Israelitish Man - Dana Wilson (tenor)
Messenger - Richard Shapp (baritone)
Bryn Mawr Boy and Girl Choirs at the Church of the Redeemer, Bryn Mawr
Ama Deus Ensemble/Valentin Radu
rec. live, Perelman Theatre, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 27 February 2009
LYRICHORD LEMS8070 [50.08 + 57.39] 
Experience Classicsonline

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 with Handel.

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 Hate Mozart, 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.

Robert Hugill


 


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