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05 Apr 2019

Hubert Parry's Judith at the Royal Festival Hall

Caravaggio’s depiction (1598-99) of the climactic moment when the young, beautiful, physically weak Judith seizes the head of Holofernes by the enemy general’s hair and, flinching with distaste, cleaves the neck of the occupying Assyrian with his own sword, evokes Holofernes’ terror with visceral precision - eyes and screaming mouth are wide open - and is shockingly theatrical, the starkly lit figures embraced by blackness.

Hubert Parry: Judith: Crouch End Festival Chorus and the London Mozart Players at the Royal Festival Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Caravaggio, ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’ (1598-99); Location: Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica at Palazzo Barberini, Rome

 

In contrast, the Florentine artist Cristofano Allori interpreted the biblical tale autobiographically (1613): the decapitated head of Holofernes is a self-portrait, while the Assyrian’s slayer is the artist’s lover Mazzafirra, her exquisitely luxurious clothing a direct tribute to the city's thriving textile industry, her manner sure, proud and confident.

These are the images with which Crouch End Festival Chorus illustrated the programme booklet for their Royal Festival Hall performance of Hubert Parry’s oratorio Judith - the first for 130 years - which was supported by the London English Song Festival. They could have chosen from many artistic representations which emphasise Judith’s daring and Holofernes’ blood-thirsty end. Parry himself, though, took a rather different approach to the biblical story of Judith, the young Jew from Bethulia who freed the people of Israel from the siege by Nebuchadnezzar’s army by infiltrating the enemy encampment, feigning a wish to forge an alliance and seducing the Assyrian general with her beauty, leading to an invitation to attend a lavish banquet in his tent after which the inebriated general was easy prey to the deadly blow of her scimitar.

While Judith’s story is one of trickery, seduction and beheading, the text which Parry wrote for his oratorio eschews all but a hint of sex and violence, in favour of a more decorous approach, and Manasseh, the ruler of the Kingdom of Judah, relates the blood-thirsty climax thus: “Judith, the daughter of Merari,/ Weakened him by the beauty of her countenance./ She put off the garments of her widowhood … Her beauty took his mind prisoner./ The falchion passed through his neck.” Indeed, in his own 1887 preface to the score, Parry expressed his own reservations: ‘It was not my original intention to call the work by her name; for though her heroism is most admirable, the sanguinary catastrophe of the story is neither artistically attractive nor suitable for introduction into a work in the Oratorio form.’

In fact, Parry struggles to create a ‘drama’ at all. Few will be familiar with trials and tribulations of the historical personnel, Manesseh and his wife Meshullemeth, which dominate the text (the work is subtitled ‘The Regeneration of Manesseh’), though the command of their false god, Moloch, that devotees must sacrifice their children by fire makes for a stirring opening to Act 1 as the Chorus of Worshippers beg for mercy and the High Priest bellows the god’s demand for the children “Within whose veins flow the blood of your King”. It also provides an opportunity for the obligatory inclusion of a children’s chorus and inspired Parry to compose a ballad for Meshullemeth, ‘Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land’ in which the Queen relates the early history of Israel to her children.

The melody of this ballad is now familiar to us as the hymn tune REPTON which in 1924 George Gilbert Stocks, director of music at Repton School, set to ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’. And, this seems fitting given that Parry, a baronet and bastion of upper-crust Britishness, was a product of the public-school system which so dominated and influenced public life, and still does. Thomas Gambier Parry, the owner of Highnam Court in Gloucester sent his son to a preparatory school in Bournemouth, where he came under the influence of Samuel Wesley, and he progressed to Eton and then on to Exeter College Oxford. J.A. Fuller-Maitland wrote in 1919, following Parry’s death in October the previous year, ‘In birth, breeding, education and musical training, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry was an example of the best that England can produce’. [1] And, the confidence of the striding walking basses, the security of the long pedals, the cycles of fifths and harmonic sequences, and the grandeur of the quasi-Handelian imitative choral writing which characterise the score of Judith - which is both devotional and celebratory - might indeed be imagined to embody the values, vigour and victories of Victorian England which Fuller-Maitland infers.

That said, at the time of its composition Judith seems to have met with a fairly lukewarm response. It was composed for the Birmingham Festival in 1888 where it was performed on 29th August, conducted by Hans Richter, and subsequently taken up by choral societies around the country including in Edinburgh, Cambridge, Bristol and Gloucester. But, not all were impressed. In A Tale of One City: The New Birmingham Papers Reprinted from the "Midland Counties Herald" , Thomas Anderton sums up the accounts of the Birmingham Festival Committee: ‘To sum up very briefly the Festivals since 1885 - the year that Richter succeeded Costa - the meeting of 1888 was remarkable for nothing that made any permanent notch in the record of the Festivals. Parry’s oratorio “Judith” was the chief novelty, but, in spite of its masterly merit as a work of musical art, it was hardly received with the favour it deserved.’ Others were more blunt, George Bernard Shaw commenting with characteristically causticity: ‘it is impossible to work up any interest in emasculated Handel and watered Mendelssohn.’

The Observer reported on 9th December 1888 that the pre-Christmas Crystal Palace Saturday Concerts would include ‘Dr. Parry’s oratorio Judith under the direction of Dr. A.C. Mackenzie’ who conducted the Novello Choir, and it was heard again in the capital on 4th May the following year, in St James Hall under the baton of Charles Villiers Stanford. That was the last performance of Judith in London and by 1919 Fuller-Maitland was lamenting the unlikelihood of the English nation rediscovery the glories of Parry’s larger oratorios Judith (1888), Job (1892) and King Saul (1894).

Sarah Fox.jpgSarah Fox (soprano).

So, Crouch End Festival Chorus and their Artistic Director William Vann have does us a great service in presenting the first performance of Parry’s oratorio for 130 years - and a terrifically committed and impassioned performance at that. Vann had clearly done his homework: his direction of the Chorus and London Mozart Players was unwaveringly encouraging, vigorous and detailed, and he demonstrated impressive stamina and the ability to sweep the music onwards even when Parry’s walking bass lines threatened to plod. The orchestral prelude, however, is rhythmically alert, a call to attention and to arms which here was softened by a sweet-toned horn solo, before the prelude segued into the darker resonances of the low horns and timpani heralding the Worshippers’ despairing cry, “Hail, Moloch! Hail, awful god/ Before whose frown the nations tremble. And, throughout there is much imaginative scoring, some especially lovely writing for the woodwind, and colourful displays from the two trumpets, three trombones and tuba.

The playing of the London Mozart Players was energised and robust, but there were problems of internal balance with the small string section often overpowered by wind and brass, despite the sterling efforts of leader Ruth Rogers. Even within the strings, eight first violins did not seem sufficient to balance four cellos and two double basses. The result was that we missed the luscious of soaring strings in the triumphant choruses, not least because Crouch End Festival Chorus were in glorious voice, as Worshippers and Watchmen, Priests and Assyrian Soldiers. Moreover, every word of text was pristinely enunciated.

A strong team of soloists had been assembled. Tenor Toby Spence was a rather angry Manasseh at the start, crescendoing through the King’s declarations, “No other sacrifice!/ O bitter doom!”, and pushing his voice to its peak. This was sometimes at the expense of lyricism, as when Manasseh urges, “Fear not, my people”, as they prepare for the sacrifice, but elsewhere Spence’s oratory was noble and Manasseh’s declaration of repentance at the start of the second Act was sensitive and moving.

Meshullemeth’s ballad sits most comfortably in the contralto range, and mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, though singing with fine focus, was not always able to find the necessary strength at the lower end, though her phrasing was dignified, and her bearing poised. The King’s Children to whom she sang were excellent, singing their lines with confidence and clear tone, led by superb soprano soloist Lydia South. As the High Priest of Moloch and Holofernes’ Messenger, Henry Waddington sang imperiously, his bass-baritone mobile and rich.

Sarah Fox gleamed in the title role, her crystalline soprano capturing both Judith’s goodness and her strength. It was not surprising that the potency and rapture of her confrontational challenge to the people, “Call to your Moloch!/ Hurl in your children!/ Cut yourselves and howl/ He shall not hear!”, stirred the Crouch End Festival Chorus to reply with the resounding fervour of a football crowd: “Cast her in the furnace!/ She hath defied great Moloch!” Fox’s beautiful, consistent tone and spot-on intonation in Judith’s Act 2 prayer conveyed her fortitude and faith, and her closing Psalm inspired an outpouring of confidence and conviction in the closing chorus, embodied in the Handelian counterpoint, striving bass lines, thunderous organ pedal and unison tremolando strings, topped with three glistening gong strokes: “And He shall lead Israel with joy in the light of His glory,/ With mercy and righteousness that cometh from Him.”

The tremendous excitement of the close drew cheers from the Royal Festival Hall audience, and Vann and his singers and musicians deserved the vigorous praise.

Claire Seymour

Parry: Judith

Sarah Fox (soprano), Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spence (tenor), Henry Waddington (bass-baritone), William Vann (conductor), Crouch End Festival Chorus, London Mozart Players.

Royal Festival Hall, London; Wednesday 3rd April 2019.



[1] J.A. Fuller-Maitland, ‘Hubert Parry’, The Musical Quarterly Vol. 5, No. 3 (Jul., 1919), pp. 299-307.

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