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Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
Judith or The Regeneration of Manasseh (1888)
Sarah Fox (soprano - Judith); Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano – Meshullemeth, wife of Manasseh); Toby Spence (tenor – Manasseh, King of Israel); Henry Waddington (bass-baritone – High Priest of Moloch / Messenger of Holofernes)
Children’s Chorus, Crouch End Festival Chorus
London Mozart Players/William Vann
rec. 2019, Church of St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London. DSD
English text included
CHANDOS CHSA5268 SACD [61:40 + 69:32]

At the beginning of April, 2019, I ventured to London to review for Seen and Heard International the first London performance since 1889 of Parry’s oratorio, Judith. (Throughout this review I’m going to use the shortened form of Parry’s title.) Some three weeks after that performance, the same artists set down, under studio conditions, the work’s first recording, which Chandos has now released.

The Parry authority, Jeremy Dibble tells us in his comprehensive notes that Parry was commissioned to write the work that became Judith for the prestigious Birmingham Music Festival of 1888. This was a great honour for the Birmingham triennial festival was a major event in the nineteenth-century British musical calendar. By writing a substantial choral work for Birmingham, Parry would be following in the footsteps of many distinguished composers, not least Mendelssohn, whose Elijah, a commission for the 1846 Festival, had provided the template for future Birmingham works and had certainly set the bar high. As Prof. Dibble points out, Parry was not a conventional Christian believer so the typical Old Testament oratorio had limited attractions for him. However, the committee of the Festival soon made it clear to hm that such a work was exactly what was expected. Eventually, Parry gave way and fashioned for himself a libretto which conflated two Old Testament stories: the errant ways of Manasseh, King of Israel; and the tale of how Judith saves Manasseh’s kingdom and people by slaying Holofernes. The libretto is a mixture of words by Parry himself (especially in Act I) and from the Old Testament.

The resulting oratorio was a long one and the Birmingham worthies got a dose of cold feet, urging Parry to cut the score. The composer, loyally backed by Hans Richter, who was to conduct the premiere, declined to do so. This is a good moment, I think, to confront the issue of length. The score plays in this performance for just over two hours and I can understand those who feel that it would have benefitted from being shorter. I admit there are passages where the creative fire burns less strongly. However, as part of my preparation for attending the London performance of Judith I listened again to the recording of the only other Parry oratorio (so far as I know) that has been recorded. This is Job, which was commissioned for the 1892 Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester. This oratorio is half the length of Judith – the 1997 Hyperion recording (CDA67025 – download review) plays for 69:16. However, on listening to it, I came to the conclusion that, although it contains some fine music, the degree of characterisation is, with the exception of the section ‘The Lamentation of Job’, nowhere near as strong as we find in Judith, nor is the story anything like as dramatically told. Perhaps a comparison between the two provides an illustration that less is not necessarily more?

The Birmingham premiere of Judith was a great success and initially the work attracted significant attention from other British choirs. Jeremy Dibble lists a few in his notes and I recently discovered, through a new biography, that the Organist of Worcester Cathedral, Hugh Blair, invited Parry to conduct what turned out to be a well-received performance in the city in 1890; on that occasion Elgar led the orchestra. However, interest in the work soon petered out and there was no London performance between 1889 and William Vann’s revival of it 2019. Even the Three Choirs Festival, a loyal bastion of the English choral tradition, ignored it. The work’s modern revival is due to the Canadian conductor and composer Stephanie Martin who performed it with her Toronto-based Pax Christi Chorale in 2015. That was not a straightforward undertaking, I believe, for it was discovered that there were no surviving orchestral parts and these had to be painstakingly transcribed using a digital copy of Parry’s manuscript score supplied by the Royal College of Music. The story is related in my preview of the London performance. Those orchestral parts were used for William Vann’s 2019 performance and for this recording, so the diligent labours in Canada have been very worthwhile.

Since both the music and the story which Parry tells in the oratorio may be new to many readers it may be best if I describe the work, commenting on the performance as I go. I deliberately refrained from re-reading my review of the preceding concert until I had written my appraisal of this recording.

The oratorio opens with an orchestral prelude. The orchestral sound and the writing are very characteristic of the composer. One thing I do remember from the Festival Hall performance was the size of the string section, which, of course, is replicated here. The London Mozart Players (LMP) comprised a string choir of 24 (8/6/4/4/2) and in the concert hall there were times when, despite their skilful playing, one longed for a bigger string sound. Aided, I presume, by judicious microphone placing, the results on the recording are much more satisfactory. The Prelude forms a fine introduction to the work and I was struck by, among other things, some ripe writing for solo horn around the three-minute mark. This music whets the listener’s appetite for what is to come.

Act I, Scene 1 follows attacca. King Manasseh and his subjects have abandoned Jehovah and are in thrall to the god Moloch, who seems a pretty nasty piece of work, constantly requiring appeasement by human sacrifices. In the opening chorus Moloch is being addressed by Worshippers, though their fear of him is all-too evident from the use of the minor key. Here, the Crouch End Festival Chorus (CEFC) immediately makes a strong, positive impression. Manasseh contributes an aria which shows that he too fears Moloch. This is fervently sung by Toby Spence whose expressive voice rings dramatically. My only concern – and it’s a recurring one – is that his top notes seem to be somewhat pressured, leading on occasion to a slight spreading of the note in question. It’s notable that while the choral writing may not, at this early point in the oratorio, be on the same level of accomplishment as in Blest Pair of Sirens (1887), Parry is here pursuing a rather different path, making the chorus participants in the drama – and successfully so. Enter Henry Waddington as the High Priest of Moloch. In a stentorian solo, imposingly delivered, he demands that Manasseh sacrifice his own children to Moloch, a request that causes the King great anguish, which Spence powerfully depicts. In the two passages for chorus with which the scene ends the CEFC are truly excellent. Their singing is committed and they offer not only excellent tone, confident attack and exemplary discipline but they also match the soloists for clarity of diction. Dramatically, I think that this scene hangs together well.

In Scene 2 we hear Manasseh’s wife, Meshullemeth, and her children. The 12-strong Children’s Chorus is absolutely first class and a special word of praise is due to soloist Lydia South, who we hear first. As was the case, I recall, in the Festival Hall, she sings clearly and confidently and when her colleagues join her, they’re just as good. As their mother, Kathryn Rudge offers excellent singing, her tone firm and warm. To her falls the aria which made the biggest impression on contemporary audiences, the Ballad ‘Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land’. Listeners will readily recognise the melody which later achieved independent fame as the hymn tune Repton (‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’). There are four stanzas here, the third of which is a minor-key variant of the tune. Miss Rudge sings it really well, telling a story, and I also appreciated Parry’s mellow orchestral accompaniment, especially in the little interludes between verses. The Priests (male chorus) arrive, their music suitably ominous, and despite Meshullemeth’s entreaties, they take the children away. Judith now enters and sings a substantial aria in which she assures the Queen of God’s merciful nature. This aria, ‘Though into the valley of the shadow of death’, is a fine, lyrical and dramatic creation and Sarah Fox makes the most of Parry’s long melodic lines. It’s a splendid aria in which the accompaniment complements the vocal line really well. Miss Fox makes a fine job of it.

At the start of Scene 3 the sacrifice of the children is imminent. Their father seems reconciled to their fate in order to save Jerusalem from the destruction threatened by Moloch. I have to say that initially the music for the Worshippers (the chorus) seems, to put it mildly, rather polite given the circumstances, though towards the end of the scene Parry increases the intensity in his choral writing. In a powerful intervention, Judith rails against the worship of Moloch and the “weak and faithless king”. Sarah Fox, singing with fire, really puts everyone in their place through her dramatic, focused delivery of the music. Roused, the furious Worshippers round on her – here yet again the CEFC really gets hold of the music – and Judith might have been in trouble were it not for the timely – or untimely – arrival of a messenger who warns that the Assyrian army is advancing towards Jerusalem. The remainder of the scene depicts the attack of the Assyrians and the failure of Moloch to help Manasseh and his people. Here, again, I’m less than fully convinced by Parry’s music. The march heralding the arrival of the Assyrians is, frankly, just jaunty; surely it should sound threatening? As for the triple-time choral music through which the people call on Moloch for help, all I can say is that in Elijah Mendelssohn’s music in a similar cause (‘Baal, we cry to thee’) was far more desperate and urgent than Parry manages here. To be fair, towards the end of the scene (“We fall, we die”) the music is much stronger – and the CEFC sing it vividly – while in the last chorus Parry conveys well the tragic fate of the people well.

Act II is prefaced by a short Intermezzo, a tenor solo. Manasseh is in prison and in what Jeremy Dibble refers to as a “penitential set piece”, he repents. Here Parry’s music is very convincing and Toby Spence sings it with eloquence.

Act II proper begins with a chorus in which the Jews, languishing in Jerusalem under the Assyrian yoke, lament their fate. Here I think Parry finds the emotional depth which I thought was lacking at times in the last scene of Act I. The CEFC impress again, their singing intense and clear. Meshullemeth reminds them of God’s mercy in music that is noble and reassuring. Kathryn Rudge is excellent hereabouts. In this solo, there’s a fleeting reminiscence of Repton; I wonder why Parry didn’t attempt to make more use of this memorable melody during the work as a whole. Somehow – we’re not told how it happened – Manasseh has got out of captivity and his return is greeted by a joyful chorus of highly skilled contrapuntal music. However, the Assyrians aren’t finished yet. Henry Waddington arrives as the Messenger of their leader, Holofernes, giving them an ultimatum: surrender within three days or the god will “smite and spare not”. This is a big, imposing Elijah-like solo which Waddington delivers in powerfully dramatic fashion. No one would take this threat lightly. In a substantial aria, ‘Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God’, Judith reassures the Jews and stiffens their sinews. She tells them that she proposes to go out of the city to sort things out, thought she reveals nothing of her plan. Once again Sarah Fox is wholly convincing.

At the start of Scene 3 an orchestral passage depicts Judith’s journey to the camp of Holofernes. Parry’s scoring here is very effective. The slaying of Holofernes is not depicted, but Judith appears to the Jews, carrying his head – Miss Fox announces herself with an imperious top B flat, making the moment really dramatic. There follows a vigorous chorus of triumph. This, Jeremy Dibble tells us, is the number that Stanford thought contained the best music in the oratorio. The CEFC deliver it with commitment and panache; if Stanford heard a performance showing this degree of commitment then it’s small wonder that he was impressed. After this comes an aria for Manasseh, ‘God breaketh the battle’. The music bears a strong Handelian influence, not least in the busy string accompaniment. In this aria of exaltation Manasseh gives a summary of what Judith has done and Toby Spence makes a fine job of it. Judith’s last aria, ‘I will sing unto the Lord a new song’ is based on Psalm 96. There’s a sweeping orchestral introduction which is echt Parry. The soloist’s music is exultant. Sarah Fox’s rapturous account of it crowns her performance as Judith. Parry closes his oratorio with a jubilant chorus which contains a good deal of fugal writing. For one last time the members of CEFC pull out all the stops; they and the orchestra ensure that this performance of Judith concludes in true splendour.

I think it will be evident from my comments that this performance is magnificent. All the musicians seem wholly convinced by the music – when I previewed the London performance, William Vann mentioned how eagerly the Crouch End Festival Chorus had taken to it in rehearsal. They certainly convey their enjoyment; it’s hard to imagine that the choral singing could be bettered. Clearly, they were assiduously prepared by Vann and by their musical director, David Temple. The soloists are all first rate with Sarah Fox offering a particularly outstanding performance and character portrayal. I may not have done sufficient justice to the contribution of the London Mozart Players. In terms of his orchestral invention Parry was to achieve greater things in his masterly Ode on the Nativity (1912) but his achievement in Judith is a significant one. The orchestral writing is colourful, imaginative and full of interest with some lovely writing for the woodwind and noble, dramatic use made of the brass. The members of the LMP do him proud.

By focusing so much on the singing I have given insufficient prominence to the orchestra but the contribution I have scarcely mentioned is that of conductor William Vann. That’s very unfair because the success of this performance is built around him. Until I saw him conduct Judith in the Royal Festival Hall, I had experienced him as a highly accomplished pianist and as a conductor of small choirs. However, his performance that night showed that he is equally adept at marshalling and galvanising large ensembles. He carries that excellence over into the recording studio, conducting with evident belief in the music. In weaker, less convinced hands than those of Vann, his singers and players, Judith might not make its proper effect. Performed with the flair and conviction that is evident here, the score is shown to best advantage. It’s a superb performance.

Chandos have certainly done Parry proud. First and foremost, engineer Jonathan Cooper and producer Adrian Peacock have recorded the work in sound that is rich, warm, atmospheric and detailed. The sound has great presence. Chandos have paid work and performers the compliment of issuing the recording in SACD sound to which I listened using the stereo layer: I obtained excellent results. The booklet, which is generously illustrated with photos taken at the Festival Hall performance, also contains the full text and first-class documentation authored by Jeremy Dibble.

How, then, should I sum up Judith? It is an uneven achievement and I’ve pointed out in this review the passages where I think Parry could have done better. However, any such shortcomings must be set against an awful lot that is good or excellent in the score and its strengths have become more apparent to me now that I’ve had the chance to hear it in more depth as opposed to at a single hearing in concert. The libretto undoubtedly reflects its time but still conveys the story well. The music is beholden at times to Mendelssohn – the shadow of Elijah often hovers beneficently – and to the English oratorio tradition as it had developed since Elijah burst on the scene in 1846; but that’s to be expected. We should be careful not to judge Judith anachronistically in the light of great English choral orchestral works that lay in the future by the likes of Elgar, Walton and Howells. Rather, we should judge it by the standards of the day and by those standards, while it may not be an unequivocal masterpiece, it’s a very fine work indeed. This superb recording will give people the opportunity to study and appreciate it at leisure. In particular, I hope some choral societies and conductors may be emboldened to tread where the Crouch End Festival Chorus and William Vann have so rewardingly trod.

Realistically, Judith will not be recorded again in my lifetime, if ever. It’s a cause for rejoicing, therefore, that its first recording is so splendid. Every Parry devotee should seek it out without delay in order to expand their experience of this fine composer; so too should all enthusiasts for English music of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century. If sales of this recording are good then maybe William Vann and Chandos will be encouraged to revive more of Parry’s as yet unrecorded works in the choral/orchestral genre.

This is a major and distinguished addition to the Parry discography.

John Quinn

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