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Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)
Judith (1888)
Sarah Fox (soprano), Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spence (tenor), Henry Waddington (bass-baritone)
Crouch End Festival Chorus
London Mozart Players/William Vann
rec. April 2019, Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
Texts included
CHANDOS CHSA5268 SACD [61:40 + 69:32]

The premiere recording of Parry’s Judith, his two-act oratorio of 1888, is a matter of significance but is it a matter of musical rejoicing? For that it rather depends on how securely one places the work in terms of lineage and influence. Commissioned by the Birmingham Festival, which had recently invited works from Bruch, Gounod and Stanford, Parry responded to the prescribed biblical text by combining the stories of Manasseh, king of Judah, and Judith, who saves the deficient king’s country by slaying Holofernes, the Assyrian general. Its première was conducted by Hans Richter and, unlike The Dream of Gerontius a decade or so later, the work was received with rapture. Rapture, though has failed to attend the work in the last eight decades or so, though recordings were made, largely on 78s, of high points from the work. That clarion Welsh tenor Tudor Davies, for instance, sang God Breaketh the Battle in 1923, five years after Parry’s death and the BBC broadcast part one of the oratorio in the late 20s.

The Prelude represents the confident symphonic Parry and thereafter things reveal both Parry’s importance on composers to come, notably Elgar, of course, but also the malaise of an inheritance and a musical obligation – clearly to Mendelssohn, whose own triumphs in Birmingham are well known, but also to the Baroque. Thus, the worshippers’ chorus Have mercy, dread Moloch is hobbled by a jog-trotting, anaemic drive – the rhythm, in fact, sounds strangely trivial and yet something like the High Priest’s Hearken, O King! is firm, steady and implacable. The scene two ballad Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land has long earned independent life as Dear Lord and Father of mankind (Repton). Parry’s orchestral writing is characteristically skilful – sample the horns in Judith’s scene Lady! Thou Queen of Israel, excellently declaimed by Sarah Fox. Then there is the powerfully brassy end to the ensuing worshippers’ chorus and some fine characterisation of the chorus in Who is this that raileth at Moloch? – confident, vengeful and successful. But the end of scene three falls back on – degenerates into, take your pick – mock-Handel of an unnecessarily slavish kind. The end of the first Act seems also to reference both the hymnal and the shanty in its little march themes and there is also a Parsifalian dying fall to bring the first part to a close.

There’s a charming Intermezzo before the second act which represents the repentance of Manasseh; very Mendelssohnian. Though marked maestoso the opening of the act, in which there is much bewailing, is stoic and rather gentlemanly. One rather suspects the Jews of Jerusalem are wearing cricket pads. And yet Parry manages a rousing chorus - if rousingly generic – to end the second scene. Judith’s ‘exploit’ – it’s how it’s marked – takes place off camera, as it were and parts of it reminded me of a ballad-like sensibility with an admixture of Stanford’s Songs of the Sea. I’m not sure that’s quite what I was expecting. The final chorus generates requisite bite and tension and is precisely the kind of thing that showed Elgar how he too could handle big choruses with idiomatic panache. This is a small index of the great debt Elgar owed Parry.

The singers are without a weak link in the chain of excellence. Toby Spence is eloquent in the role of the weaselly Manasseh and Kathryn Rudge, as his wife, is splendidly authoritative. Henry Waddington takes on two roles – the High Priest and the Messenger - with requisite gravity and steadiness of tone. Much praise, too, to the children’s chorus and the orchestral and choral forces. Most praise, though, to the conductor William Vann who brings a true sense of conviction to the piece and ensures a fine and just balance between the orchestra and chorus. This 2019 recording followed on the heels of a critically admired Royal Festival Hall performance. There is loving attention to detail and an absorbing commitment to the music-making.

So, yes, it’s splendid that this big work has finally been professionally recorded. Whether through the haste of writing it or a certain native reserve, it’s the work’s sudden changes of register, Wagnerian assimilations, French choral associations, and Mendelssohnian and Handelian references that bedevil it. It lacks consistency of tone; it lacks the courage to speak in its true voice throughout. And yet there are many memorable moments and many characteristic elements that are worthy of repeated listening and mark this significant staging post in the British oratorio tradition.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: John Quinn

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