Judith, or The Regeneration of Manasseh – Oratorio in two Acts to a text by the composer with additions from the Apocrypha [sung in English]
Manasseh, King of Israel – Toby Spence
Meshullemeth, his wife – Kathryn Rudge
Judith – Sarah Fox
High Priest of Moloch, Messenger of Holofernes – Henry Waddington
Children’s Chorus & Crouch End Festival Chorus
London Mozart Players
Recorded 25-27 April 2019 at St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: August 2020
CD No: CHANDOS CHSA 5268 [2 SACDs]
Duration: 2 hours 11 minutes
This Chandos release is the recording debut of an oratorio that was an immediate hit at its first outings in 1888 (starting in Birmingham, then doing the rounds of the UK), and the fact that the performance of Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s Judith at the Royal Festival Hall in April 2019 (on which this subsequent recording was made) was its first London appearance since 1888 only proves how tastes change and popularity wanes.
Parry may not have been a card-carrying Christian, but, like his similarly educated contemporaries, he knew his Bible well enough to devise his own text about the Israelite heroine Judith – who has her own book in the pre-New Testament Apocrypha collection – who delivered her people from the savage army of the general Holofernes, one of the Bible’s Assyrians who came down like a wolf on the Israelite fold. Her beheading of him has been the subject of many a gory painting, an oratorio by Vivaldi, and operas by Honegger (apparently one of his finest works) and Eugene Goossens (with a libretto by Arnold Bennett).
The story has a lot going for it – extravagant female empowerment, the Israelite penchant for false gods – in this case the appalling, child-guzzling Moloch, half-Aga, half cow, all vengeance – and a repentant return to the bosom of Jehovah. Parry’s text also hints at a Messianic parallel between Judith and Jesus, in that both were Jews who redeemed their people, a moral, religious point that would not have been lost on audiences of five generations ago.
This recording captures the conviction of last year’s concert as well as the work’s unevenness.
Confident, superbly sung choral contributions (coached by David Temple) filters Handel and Mendelssohn and just occasionally anticipates the oratorio genre’s liberation by Elgar and Walton without quite matching the drama of the story.
Some powerful solos for Judith, the feckless king Manasseh, and his sorrowing wife Meshullemeth (who gets the work’s big tune, which still thrives as the English Hymnal’s ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’) make you wonder, especially in the first part, who is the focus of interest, and the all-important decapitation related after the event by Judith is inevitably anti-climactic – a pity, because Sarah Fox brilliantly combines spiritual zeal and sword-like gleam. Toby Spence deploys his urgent lyricism in a fine portrait of Manasseh’s vacillation, weakness and eventual redemption. Kathryn Rudge is radiant as Meshullemeth, a role you feel could take any amount of mezzo/contralto embonpoint, and Henry Waddington makes the High Priest’s and the Assyrian Messenger’s pronouncements suitably sonorous and baleful.
William Vann works wonders with the London Mozart Players. In a perfect world, the strings would have been a couple of desks larger, and occasionally you’re aware of some cleverly managed organ expansion from William Whitehead (presumably on St Jude’s Willis instrument). The woodwind comes into its own in the lovely Intermezzo that opens the second part, which in general is the stronger of the two. Parry fans, amongst them the Prince of Wales, will not be without this Chandos recording, which honours the spirit of those epic Victorian and Edwardian panoramas that were, over a century ago, the ultimate musical statement.
Judith is unlikely to displace Jerusalem, I was glad, or Blest Pair of Sirens as the best of Parry, but it nevertheless is brimming with the melodic fervor, harmonic imagination and wide-ranging sensibility that so distinguish this marvellous composer’s music.