George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Judas Maccabeus (1747) [128.09]
Israelitish Woman - Maria Soledad de la Rosa (soprano)
Israelitish Man - Mariana Rewerski (mezzo)
Priest/Messenger - Fabian Schofrin (alto)
Judas Maccabeus - Makoto Sakurada (tenor)
Simon Maccabeus - Alejandro Meerapfel (baritone)
Eupolemus - Etienne Debasieux (bass)
Choeur de Chambre de Namur; Les Agremens/Leonardo Garcia Alarcon
rec. abbatial church of Ambronay, France, 26 September 2009
AMBRONAY AMY024 [64.05 + 64.04]
This new recording of Handel's patriotic reaction to the 1745 Jacobite rebellion comes with a rather exotic pedigree. The choir is from Namur, the orchestra is also French, the conductor Argentinean and the soloists, judging by their names, come from a variety of non-anglophone countries.
The lack of a tradition of singing in English in Southern Europe has inhibited the growth of performance of Handelian oratorio alongside other baroque pieces. But, as conductor Leonardo Garcia Alarcon points out in his notes in the CD booklet, throughout his career Handel worked with Italian singers in polyglot performances. All well and good, but the proof of any recording is in the listening.
And from the first notes of the overture, this performance has terrific vividness and drama. Les Agremens are a decent-sized band, with 15 string players. Under Alarcon's lively direction they give Handel's overture a crisp and infectious impetus which carries you away.
This is carried over into the first duet, From this dread scene, between Maria Soledad de la Rosa and Mariana Reweski. Both have strong voices but with a good feel for Handel's line. De la Rosa has a distinctive timbre - which reminded me of mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley - giving the line a strength not always found in Handelian sopranos. The soloists are all allocated to the named roles so that Reweski is the Israelitish Man, de la Rosa the Israelitish Woman.
Alejandro Meerapfel is Simon (Judas Maccabeus's brother). Meerapfel's lovely baritone and capability with baroque idiom stands out on a disc where all the soloists are strong. I loved Meerapfel's voice, his focused flexibility and the way he makes the words tell. Despite singing English with a strong accent, he made sure that the text was comprehensible.
In the title role Makato Sakurada sings with elegance, but lacking the bravura and dramatic strength which the role needs.
Alto Fabian Schofrin provides strong support in the smaller roles of the Priest and the Messenger.
The Choeur de Chambre de Namur are a fine chamber choir, numbering some twenty singers and they give a fine musical performance of the score. They show a compatibility with this music that would be the envy of many English choruses. But their English is by no means perfect, and as with many non-English choirs in this repertory, they just don't make enough of the words. Oratorio is about text and narrative; it is important that the choir's significant role in this is not compromised.
The soloists all do a heroic job at projecting the English text and all sing with strong accents; you would never mistake this for an Anglophone performance. And it is to the group's credit that they have note taken the easy route and cast the soloists from Anglophone or Scandinavian singers.
Alarcon uses two instrumental movements from Joshua (the Solemn March and the Introduction to Act 3) as well as giving the priest the aria Cease thy anguish from Athalia.
Over and above the language issue, there is one item which might annoy purists. Alarcon makes extensive use of the harpsichord and plucked continuo in the choruses, where Handel's habit was to use organ continuo in the choruses.
Judas Maccabeus is not one of the top-rank Handel oratorios, but it has some terrific moments. Here it is given a vivid and involving performance by Alarcon, his French choir and orchestra and polyglot soloists; they respond to the drama in Handel's music. If you can get beyond the limitations of the sung English then this is for you.