A Triumphant London Revival of Parry’s Judith

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Parry: Sarah Fox (soprano), Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spence (tenor), Henry Waddington (bass-baritone), Crouch End Festival Chorus, London Mozart Players / William Vann (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 3.4.2019. (JQ)

William Vann

ParryJudith or The Regeneration of Manasseh

Recently, I wrote a preview of this revival of Parry’s substantial oratorio, which included a significant amount of comment about the work from tonight’s conductor, William Vann. I’m going to use the title Judith throughout this review for ease of reference; however, as Prof Jeremy Dibble pointed out in an illuminating pre-concert talk, the alternative title, The Regeneration of Manasseh was just as important to Parry because the libretto focusses not just on the heroic deeds of Judith but also on the change of heart by Manasseh, the ruler of Judah.

Parry composed the oratorio in response to a prestigious commission from the Birmingham triennial Music Festival of 1888; the commission came in the wake of the huge success enjoyed by Blest Pair of Sirens (1887). Parry was reticent about composing a traditional oratorio on a biblical subject but eventually acquiesced and wrote much of the libretto himself as well as the music. Judith achieved a great success at its first performance and was taken up by a number of other choirs and festivals although, after Parry’s death in 1918, the oratorio, like much of his music, fell into neglect. So far as is known, the last full performance in the UK was an amateur performance in South Wales in 1951, and until tonight London hasn’t heard the work since 1889.

Two of the principal characters, Manasseh and Meshullemeth, are historical figures and Moloch was an ancient god. However, Judith herself is a legendary character. The oratorio is divided into two Acts separated by an Intermezzo. A brief synopsis of the action is as follows. In Act I the Hebrew king, Manasseh (the tenor soloist) has espoused the cult of the pagan god, Moloch but, in an unpleasant turn of events, the High Priest (sung by the bass) demands that Manasseh sacrifice his own children to Moloch. In scene two. Manasseh’s wife, Meshullemeth (the mezzo-soprano) comforts her children. Judith (soprano) tries to halt the sacrifice but at first her pleas fall on deaf ears. Undeterred, she tries again when the Worshippers take the children to be sacrificed. Judith upbraids the people for forsaking Jehovah in favour of Moloch. The sacrifice is then interrupted by news of an invading army of Assyrians. They defeat the Jewish people and take Manasseh into captivity in Babylon.

Act II is preceded by a short Intermezzo in which the imprisoned Manasseh repents of his devotion to Moloch. As Act II opens, Manasseh returns to his people, having escaped. The enemy, Holofernes sends a messenger (the bass soloist) to threaten that unless Manasseh and his people submit to Holofernes he will raze Jerusalem to the ground. This is the point at which Judith saves her people, although how she does this is not depicted explicitly in the libretto. She enters the camp of Holofernes, seduces him and, while he sleeps, she slays him. After this, Holofernes’ army is routed and Israel rejoices.

In the pre-concert talk, Jeremy Dibble pointed out that in writing Judith Parry looked back respectfully to the strong oratorio tradition in Birmingham – the Festival would always be bookended by Messiah and Elijah. He also drew on his great love of Bach. In addition, he was mindful that the chorus needed to be given plenty to do: as Prof Dibble put it – and I paraphrase – they hadn’t paid their subscriptions just to sit around hearing soloists strut their stuff all night. So, Judith features a lot of chorus work as well as important solo roles. I’ll reserve judgement on the work until I’ve had the opportunity to study it properly through the forthcoming recording which this concert’s performers are to make. However, based on what I heard, there is a good deal of stirring and very well-wrought music. Furthermore, I was surprised – in a good way – by how dramatic the piece is at times, though, as we shall see, that had much to do with the quality of the performance. That said, there are less impressive passages. Act II Scene 3 opens with a lengthy exchange between Manasseh and the male chorus (as Watchmen). Frankly, despite the best efforts of tonight’s performers, the music struck me as dutiful until the oratorio seemed to mark time until Judith arrived on the scene in grand style, bearing the head of Holofernes. Earlier, the finale of Act I, which depicts the coming of the Assyrians, was, to be frank, Elijah-lite – and Mendelssohn was definitely not surpassed. In fairness, though, the last chorus in this section (‘What cry is rising from our homes?’) was on a much higher level; the music was first dramatic and then, at the close, despairing. The choral writing in Judith is never less than assured – and it was put across superbly by the Crouch End Festival Chorus. However, even at its most energised, I don’t think that Parry’s music here matches his achievement in Blest Pair of Sirens, still less the mastery that was to come in Ode on the Nativity (1912) and the Songs of Farewell. There were several choruses where very confident contrapuntal music was to be heard but it seemed to me that in these stretches of music Parry didn’t attain the exalted level of the last few minutes of Blest Pair.

I must hasten to add, though, that there is much to admire in the score. In the interview I conducted with him in advance of the performance William Vann commented that the four solo roles require big voices and personalities. The character of Judith herself has a succession of dramatic, large-scale arias, each one of which commands the listener’s attention. The mezzo role of Meshullemeth also contains much fine music, notably the Act I aria, ‘Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land’. The tenor soloist has some demanding music to get his teeth into. The bass has less to do but his solos, heavily influenced by Elijah, are substantial and imposing.

I think, then, that Judith is musically somewhat uneven, though the strong passages definitely outweigh the less interesting ones. However, if the music could be described as uneven the same could not be said of the performance which was, in a word, magnificent.

All four soloists distinguished themselves. I’ve heard three of them quite often before, both live and on CD, but to the best of my recollection I’ve not previously heard Henry Waddington. He made an excellent impression. His biography in the programme focussed almost exclusively on operatic roles. Among the handful of concert roles listed, the title role in Elijah was not mentioned but if he hasn’t sung that role, he ought to do so. His singing was commanding when he took the role of the High Priest in Act I, and when in Act II he appeared as the imposing Messenger of the Assyrian army you knew at once that he wasn’t bringing glad tidings! Kathryn Rudge offered lovely, eloquent singing as Meshullemeth. Her delivery of ‘Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land’ was a touching and sincere narrative while she was heartfelt in her Act II aria, ‘The Lord is long suffering and merciful’. Incidentally, I must compliment her and her three colleagues on the clarity of their diction throughout the performance.

The role of Manasseh is a big one and it helped greatly that tonight we had a tenor who has the range of vocal resources necessary to undertake the title role in Gerontius. In Act I, Toby Spence convincingly portrayed the anguish of Manasseh as he contemplates the approaching sacrifice of his children to the god Moloch. Later, he offered an expressive account of the repentance aria which Parry inserted as an Intermezzo between the two Acts. He also made a fine job of the Handelian aria in Act II, Scene 3, though, despite his best efforts and the pleasingly light accompaniment, I thought this aria went on just a little too long.

Sarah Fox was outstanding as the eponymous heroine.  At her first intervention, in Act I, Scene 3 (‘Stay your hideous mockeries!’) she and William Vann brought the music – and characterization – excitingly to life. She was no less impressive in her long aria in Act II, Scene 2 but she reserved her best singing for her two final contributions. I mentioned earlier the rather dutiful music at the start of Act II, Scene 3. Miss Fox’s dramatically arresting entry – on a top B flat, I think – changed all that. The subsequent solo for Judith is a compelling affair and Miss Fox’s account of it was splendid. At the end of the aria, I scribbled in my note book ‘That’s telling them!’ Her final contribution of the evening, in the finale to Act II, was a very fine rendition of an aria that is by turns, majestic and touching.

I was greatly impressed by the singing of the Crouch End Festival Chorus. Numbering about 100, they made a fine showing. From first to last they sang with great commitment and it was evident that they relished the music. The singers demonstrated a very good dynamic range and though I didn’t have access to a score it seemed to me that they were alive to dynamic contrasts. There words were clear as well. Throughout the performance the choir was extremely confident. I recalled the comment made to me in my preview of Judith by the Canadian conductor, Stephanie Martin, concerning her 2015 Toronto performance of the work. She related that her choir were inspired by the fact that Parry ‘allowed [them] to play the roles of both the good guys and the bad guys’. It was abundantly clear that the Crouch End singers were similarly motivated. They gave a fine demonstration of dramatic choral singing, communicating strongly with the audience. Nor must I neglect to mention the contribution of the twelve boys and girls who sang as Meshullemeth’s children in Act I. Their platform discipline was faultless and, though this must have been a big occasion for them, there was no sign at all of nerves. Their singing was clear, confident and beautifully tuned – and they did it all from memory! Particularly self-possessed was Lydia South who sang the solo verse extremely well. These young singers fully deserved their reprieve from being sacrificed. Bravo!

The orchestral side of things was safe in the hands of the London Mozart Players who did a fine job. If I have a reservation it would be that the string choir was on the small side (8/6/4/4/2). I’m sure that cost was a factor here – and understandably so. However, from my very well-positioned seat in the rear stalls to the conductor’s left the cello/bass line was often indistinct. I wonder if it would helped had Mr. Vann opted to divide his violins left and right, positioning the cellos and violas centre-stage? On the other hand, the fact that a full symphony orchestra was not on parade meant that there were no issues of the instruments overpowering the singers.

Above all, the evening was an unalloyed triumph for William Vann. He’s been working hard to bring this project to fruition for over two years. That commitment to Parry’s score showed in everything he did. He is, I think, mostly known for his work as a choral conductor but tonight he showed that he is completely at ease directing an orchestra – not all choral conductors are; the disciplines are very different. From the very start of the Overture his conducting was not only assured but also dynamic. Throughout the performance it was evident that he was inspiring his players and singers, yet never in a way that was flashy or histrionic. Watching him from behind, it seemed to me that his beat and all his gestures were crystal clear. He had complete command of the score and evident belief in the music. I was left in no doubt that Mr. Vann was a doughty champion for Judith, both in terms of scrupulous prepraration and inspiring conducting.

On the evidence of what I heard, while Judith may not be the pinnacle of Parry’s achievement in choral/orchestral writing – that accolade surely belongs to the masterpiece that is Ode on the Nativity – there is a great deal to admire in this score. I’m very glad that I’ve had the opportunity to hear it – and all the more so that I experienced it in such a terrific performance. That pleasure was evidently shared by the audience who, at the end, gave the performers – and the work – an ovation that was as enthusiastic as it was well-deserved. I hope that the performers can carry the electricity of this performance into the recording studio in a few days’ time. I look forward to the promised CD release from Chandos with keen anticipation.

John Quinn     

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