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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Brilliant Classics

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Judas Maccabeus

Israelite woman - Heather Harper (soprano)
Israelite man - Helen Watts (contralto)
Judas Maccabaeus - Alexander Young (tenor)
Simon - John Shirley-Quirk (baritone)
Amor Artis Chorale
Wandsworth School Boys Choir
English Chamber Orchestra/Johannes Somary
Brilliant Classics Handel Edition Volumes 4 to 5
Brilliant Classics 99777-4/5 [2 CDs: 71.29+72.25]

Along with the 'Occasional Oratorio', which preceded it, 'Judas Maccabeus' marks a significant departure for Handel. His previous dramatic oratorio, 'Belshazzar' (written to a fine libretto by Charles Jennens) had been well received by the cognoscenti, but had played to poor houses. This had been followed, on Handel's part, by severe illness. His contribution to the war effort, as a result of the 1745 rebellion, had been the 'Occasional Oratorio', probably to a libretto by Thomas Morrell. This was a hastily assembled affair, reusing large chunks of earlier works, but it chimed in with the national mood. 'Judas Maccabeus' was more considered, but again it eschewed the fine wrought dramatic oratorio style of 'Belshazzar' for a more broad, brush approach with far less intrinsic drama.

The libretto was written by Reverend Thomas Morrell. Rector of Buckland in Herts and a perpetual curate of Kew, Morrell was in the circle that surrounded Queen Caroline and was a friend of Garrick and Hogarth. As a librettist, Morrell was more relaxed, easy going and compliant than his predecessor Charles Jennens (author of the libretti to 'Messiah' and 'Belshazzar'). Handel had easier relations with Morrell than with Jennens. Though Morrell later recalled the difficulty of supplying an oratorio text 'especially if it be considered, what alterations he must submit to, if the composer be of an haughty disposition and has but an imperfect acquaintance with the English Language'.

'Judas Maccabaeus' was first performed on 1st April 1747. The title role was sung by the distinguished tenor, John Beard. The soprano soloist was Elisabetta de Gambarini herself a composer, to whose collection of keyboard lessons and songs Handel subscribed. It was probably originally conceived of before the 'Occasional Oratorio' but then shelved in favour of that oratorio. When the project was revived, its mood of triumph and popular rejoicing was made to fit the national mood in the wake of the victorious outcome of Cumberland's Scottish Campaign in 1746.

This is the least dramatic of Handel's narrative oratorios, the military actions are all reported by messengers. Judas Maccabaeus was the son of an aged priest who took to the mountains in rebellion when Antiochus IV Ephiphanes tried to impose the Greek religion on the Jews, Judas became leader of the rebels on his father's death and won a series of victories over the Syrians in 166164 BC. In 166 he purified the Temple of Jerusalem, an event celebrated at Hanukkah. On Antiochus's death in 164, the Seleucids offered the Jews freedom of worship, but Judas continued the war, hoping to gain political freedom. He was killed soon thereafter, but his brothers carried on the struggle. The history of the dynasty is told in the two books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha.

There is a significant absence of personal relationships in Handel's oratorio and this is enhanced by the abstract nature of the female roles. They are mainly disembodied voices rather than particular characters. The oratorio proved popular and was revived nearly every succeeding season until Handel's death.

Generally, you can tell from the first notes of the overture whether a Handel performance is going to be to your taste. Here, the English Chamber Orchestra make an unfashionable rich sound, but they are crisp, rhythmic and not a little stylish. The recording dates from 1972 and the English Chamber Orchestra's Handel was considered very stylish at the time. Somary's speeds are a little on the steady side but not overly so and the performance of the overture never becomes ponderous. Unfortunately things take a turn for the worst when the chorus come on. They make a huge, vibrato laden sound. Not only is it completely at odds with current views on Handelian choral sound, it is also at odds with the sound made by the English Chamber Orchestra. At this point, you might wonder whether it was worth persevering with the recording. But then along comes Helen Watts. She sings with such admirable style and flexibility that you want to continue listening. Her duet with Heather Harper in 'Come ever smiling liberty' is a joy and made you long for more.. Heather Harper is a stylish soprano soloist and her contributions, such as 'Ah! Wretched Israel' are exquisite. Harper's lovely singing is one of the things that made listening to this recording worth while, when faced with the choral sounds made by the Amor Artis Chorale. And even they have their moments, when called to be robustly martial, then they are roused to firmer tones.

John Shirley-Quirk makes a fine bravura effort of his first aria 'Arm, arm, ye brave!'. Quirk's familiar tones lend warmth to Simon's heroic platitudes. Alexander Young has a bright, steely tone, suitable for Judas. He is suitably heroic (Judas is not one of the subtlest of Handelian roles) but he seemed a little bogged down by the passage work. By 1972 he would have been moving towards the end of his career. (By the time I saw him in Gerontius in 1973 I think that he was spending most of his time teaching).

The performance is marred by a number of cuts, the most damaging is the Liberty sequence in Act I (though we do get 'Come Ever Smiling Liberty' itself). I am a little curious as to why this particular performance was revived as there exists a similar Mackerras recording from 1977 which is altogether more stylish and intelligent. The recording is blessed with four very stylish British Handelians and is worth listening to for them, if nothing else.

Robert Hugill


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