Sing unto the Lord a new song

Judith_Beheading_Holofernes_by_CaravaggioHubert Parry’s 1888 work Judith got its North American premiere yesterday in a performance by Pax Christi Chorale at Koerner Hall.  It’s a typical English high Victorian oratorio, commissioned by the Leeds Choral Society Birmingham Festival (Wikipedia strikes again).  It’s got some very grand choruses and some tuneful solos (one was later used for the hymn tune Repton setting the words “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”).  If one like’s that sort of thing, and Peter Simple’s Alderman Footbotham of the Bradford Tramways and Fine Arts Committee would certainly have approved, it’s very enjoyable.  And if that’s not enough, there’s human sacrifice, seduction and murder to keep one’s interest.

It got a suitably full blooded treatment yesterday with conductor Stephanie Martin pulling out all the stops from the opening “Hail Moloch! Hail, awful God!” to the closing chords replete with fortissimo brass, timpani and clashing cymbals.  In between though it’s not without subtleties especially in the solo parts.  The tenor sings Manasseh, the apostate – later penitent, king of the Israelites, and gets some pretty sympathetic music.  So do the other soloists most of the time.  Only Judith herself (the soprano soloist), and then only in the most dramatic moments, really has to fight to be heard over the orchestra.  Unsurprisingly, big choruses aside, Judith gets the most dramatic music, especially her aria, “Ho! Ye upon the walls!” announcing the demise of Holofernes, which starts improbably high (B flat?).

The four soloists were excellent.  Shannon Mercer was a suitably strong Judith, singing in a discrete black number in the first half but appearing after the break in a rather strikingly décolleté green outfit.  Holofernes never stood a chance!  She really stood out in her two big numbers in the second half.  Jillian Yemen sang the mezzo role of Queen Meshullemeth.  It’s a much more conversational role and gets the big Repton number “Alas! my children, great cause hath He for anger” which tells the back story of the Israelites in almost Wagnerian fashion.  My oratorio sensibilities, conditioned by HIP Handel performances, might have preferred less vibrato but there’s no doubting that Ms. Yemen’s performance was appropriate and likely closer to what Parry would have expected.  David Menzies sang the tenor role with great, almost lieder like, clarity and baritone Michael York was very effective in the multiple baritone roles; much of his music of a rather higher tessitura than I might have expected, especially for a character like the High Priest of Moloch.  Excellent work too from the four boys from St. Michael’s Choir School who sang the royal children.

The choir and the orchestra were clearly into this piece.  There are places where subtlety is called for but there’s a lot of full on, high octane singing and it’s not simple either.  Several of the big choruses appear to have quite a sophisticated fugue structure (hard to be sure on first hearing) and the soprano line is often cruelly high.  All of this was executed with considerable precision  I imagine that this could easily descend into mush and it didn’t.

So, a rather interesting high Victorian piece rescued from obscurity in a fine performance.  Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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2 thoughts on “Sing unto the Lord a new song

  1. Thanks for giving ‘Judith’ a listen with open ears John. We hope she will live on. Just to note that this piece was commissioned for Birmingham Festival in 1888, and the first performance was there in the town hall. Cheers!

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