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Music review: Judith at the Royal Festival Hall

26 April 2019

Garry Humphreys finds Parry’s oratorio a gift


Royal Festival Hall, in London

Royal Festival Hall, in London

THE revival of Hubert Parry’s oratorio Judith, at the Royal Festival Hall on 3 April, billed as the first complete London performance since the 19th century, was keenly awaited.

Staged as part of the London English Song Festival, it was inspired by a previous revival in 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, which was the initiative of Stephanie Martin, music director of the city’s Pax Christi Chorale. For this Canadian performance (which can be viewed on YouTube), fresh scores and parts were made, with the involvement of Jeremy Dibble — professor of music at Durham University and author of the standard modern biography of Parry — and these formed the basis of material used for the London revival. Professor Dibble gave a pre-performance talk, which I was unable to attend, but also provided illuminating notes in the printed programme.

Readers of the Church Times will require only the briefest reminder of the story of Judith: Holofernes leads a Persian invasion of Israel, the town of Bethulia is under siege; the beautiful widow Judith seduces the enemy general to kill him; displays his severed head on the city walls; the enemy army flees in terror, and Judith is hailed as saviour of her people and a national heroine.

This is a story that undoubtedly appealed to Parry when he was commissioned by the Birmingham Festival to produce a large-scale choral work in 1888, to be conducted by Hans Richter. Although drawing on the Bible, Parry wrote most of the libretto himself: it is of high quality, and drew the praise of his colleague Charles Villiers Stanford, who in particular described the queen mother Meshullemeth’s story of Israel’s history to her children (“Long since in Israel’s plenteous land”) as “of no ordinary merit”. Parry had written earlier large-scale choral works, but it was Blest Pair of Sirens the previous year, 1887, for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, that secured his reputation in this field and resulted in a flood of new commissions, including Judith.

Judith was a great success when first performed, and certainly demonstrates the variety of the composer’s invention. It is easy to make too much of the obvious influence of Brahms and Schumann on Parry’s orchestration, but in Judith there is imaginative use, for example in music for the High Priest, of a trio of trombones and tuba, cellos, string basses and bassoons, to create a chillingly ominous atmosphere. The only percussion instrument other than the timpani, a gong, adds startlingly atmospheric effects. These, and other aspects of the score, came out very clearly in the South Bank performance, at which the orchestra and chorus were much smaller than Parry would have envisaged (this was the time of vast choral festivals); but there was a gain in clarity of both vocal and instrumental parts.

The Crouch End Festival Chorus and the London Mozart Players under William Vann, the young director of music at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, were outstanding, and it was only when full forces were playing in loud passages that the strings tended to be overwhelmed by the brass. The forthcoming CD will no doubt redress this imbalance. A public performance is an essential prerequisite to a recording of a work.

The popularity of Judith with Victorian choirs reflects the effective choruses the piece contains, many of them dramatic and exciting in their way, and thoroughly enjoyable to sing; but Parry somehow, despite his radicalism, does not quite forget that he is a respectable Victorian gentleman, and has difficulty throwing caution to the winds in those choruses depicting terror or alarm. Both Parry and Elgar (only nine years younger) were admirers of Wagner’s music dramas, but somehow Elgar grasped the nettle, for example in King Olaf eight years later, with greater abandon than Parry was prepared to do. (But then even Elgar still had problems in 1900 with the Devils’ Chorus in Gerontius.) Perhaps the breakthrough really came only with Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in 1931.

Listening to Judith, I could not help thinking of Mendelssohn’s Elijah (another Birmingham Festival commission) and the similarity of arrangement. There are beautiful solos, to be sure, sung superbly without exception by the soprano Sarah Fox as Judith, the mezzo Kathryn Rudge as Meshullameth, the tenor Toby Spence as Manasseh the king of Israel, and the bass-baritone Henry Waddington as the high priest of Moloch and the messenger of Holofernes.

Two of Manasseh’s arias are tributes to Bach (the Intermezzo before Act 2: “Manasseh’s repentance in captivity in Babylon”) and Handel (“God breaketh the battle”), the latter perhaps as might have been orchestrated by Hamilton Harty, but with some harmonic side-slips at the end to prove that it is not 18th-century; but many are too long and repetitive, such as “Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land”, which has the tune that was eventually used for the hymn “Dear Lord and Father of mankind” (Repton). Oddly, even in its original context, it still sounds like a hymn tune. The trio at the end of Act 2, scene 1, was particularly beautiful, as was the unaccompanied singing in Act 1, in harmony and from memory, of 12 young people playing the King’s Children.

It is shameful that this important work of Hubert Parry, surely a gift for able choirs, should have been neglected for so long. There was not a full house at the Royal Festival Hall, but the performers were treated to a definite full-house standing ovation at the end. There are other works by Parry — and by other composers of the same era — which deserve revival. I hope Mr Vann and his forces will be encouraged to explore further.

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