Written in the late 1740s, Judas Maccabaeus was a clever attempt by the ever-wily Handel to capitalize on recent successes, both his own – in the form of the now-established oratorio concert – and that of the nation, in the wake of the recent victories over Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Scottish rebels. Until this evening, only excerpts of the work had been heard at the Proms, and so tonight was an opportunity for the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment and their director, Laurence Cummings, to make their case for a work much less popular now than it was in Handel’s own day.
The erudite programme notes admit that the work’s diminished respect compared to other oratorios such as Theodora is largely due to its reduced dramatic scope. Relating the trials of the Jewish army as they attempt to win a decisive victory over their persecutors, it is more musical pageant than drama. At the beginning the dejected Jews call upon Judas to lead them to victory. This he duly accomplishes, following which, as Monty Python might put it, there is much rejoicing. Characterisation is minimal, with most of the comment provided by two representative figures, the Israelitish Man and Woman. This evening the oratorio was presented in the 1750 revision, and perhaps this accounted in part for the incorrect ordering of movements in the libretto, with a couple of arias not listed.
The orchestra, together with the 40-odd strong Choir of the Enlightenment, provided the evening’s most consistent thrills. Dark and rich in the opening chorus, ‘Mourn, ye afflicted children’, they went on to display exemplary control and ebullient joy in later interjections, which sizzled with energy. This is due in no small part to the astonishing energy with which Cummings inflamed the players and singers. With his wonted instinctive feeling for style, he moved freely between marshalling his forces and accompanying them with flair on the harpsichord.
Less uniformly successful were the contributions of the soloists, variously called on to commiserate with or inspire the chorus. Due to illness, baritone Christopher Purves was replaced on short notice by the experienced Alastair Miles. Understandably though disappointingly Miles seldom lifted his eyes from the copy, but nevertheless sang resonantly. More surprising was a similar reliance on the score from tenor John Mark Ainsley in the central role of Judas. Whilst he despatched the tricky coloratura passages cleanly and graciously, it was only when he emerged from behind the copy that his lithe voice truly rang out. Of the main participants, it sometimes seemed that only mezzo Christine Rice, in the trouser role of Israelitish Man, had the requisite generosity of voice and performance to really involve the audience – though Rosemary Joshua sang with the beguiling musicality and considered ornamentation which has made her a respected Handelian. Special mention should also be made of countertenor Tim Mead, who made the most of the small Messenger/Priest role. His aria at the opening of Part 3 was magical, sung with daringly pure, liquid tone.
All this meant that I spent portions of the evening waiting for the next chorus, quickly ascertaining that each would be reliably top-notch. These culminated in a performance of the well-known ‘See, see the conquering hero’, which in its gleeful delivery bordered on the camp. Moments such as these were the highlights of what occasionally felt a long evening.
fought on British soil – the putting-down at
Culloden of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion – Handel’s
oratorio recounts a tale of military prowess on
the part of the Israelites of biblical times, with
whom Protestant England was keen to identify.
Under the direction of Laurence Cummings –
Music Director of the Handel festivals in London
and Göttingen – the distinguished line-up of
soloists is headed by
John Mark Ainsley, a
tackling a role long
pinnacle of the tenor
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
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