Thursday, 4 April 2019

Impressive Hubert Parry: Judith, William Vann, Royal Festival Hall

The first London performance in over 100 years of Hubert Parry's Judith, or the Regeneration of Manasseh, at the Royal Festival Hall, with William Vann conducting the London Mozart Players , the Crouch End Festival Chorus (David Temple, chorusmaster) and an all-star cast of soloists:  Sarah Fox, Kathryn Rudge, Toby Spence and Henry Waddington.  Hugely impressive !  Parry's current public image is based on a very few high profile pieces like Blest Pair of Sirens. But the true nature of Parry's music is infinitely more diverse, even radical in his originality. Judith is important because it puts the composer into context. Oratorios, sacred and non-sacred, are at the heart of the English choral tradition.  But Parry wasn't a traditionalist.  "I don't like the oratorio notion", he wrote,"though of course I can make a work on oratorio lines which shall be perfectly independent of ecclesiastic or so-called religious conventions."  Parry's Judith draws from the Book of Judith which does not figure either in the Hebrew canon or Protestant Old Testament,  Parry expands the drama with new material, developing substantial roles for the main figures, hence the full title Judith, or the Regeneration of Manasseh.  The emphasis is on the liberation of the nation through a revival of its identity. In 1888, at the age of forty, Parry was forging his own identity and advancing British music in the process.

Parry's Judith was written for the Birmingham Triennial Festival, vwhich had commissioned  Mendelssohn's Elijah, and had also premiered St. Paul. Thus the explicit homage to Mendelssohn in the choruses and perhaps more so in the intensity of conception.  Parry achieves this not by the extravagance of late Victorian taste, but with a fairly small orchestra. The detail in Parry's orchestration is so expressive that it needs skilled individual playing.  The lines of the vocal soloists are enhanced by soloists in the orchestra. The "Mozart" ethos of the London Mozart Players no doubt contributed to the clarity of this performance. Some very fine playing indeed. Parry also references Bach, using counterpoint to elaborate texture. There are wonderful dramatic effects, too, when needed -  oboe and clarinets singing melancholy sweetness, trombones calling like ancient instruments, supplemented by livelier horns. Cymbals and a large tam-tam provide suitably "period" colour.

Very early on, though, Parry's gift for song emerges in Meshullemeth's "Long since in Egypt's plenteous Land", which proved so popular that it was adapted as the hymn "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind" (Repton).  Kathryn Rudge sang Meshullemeth, the richness in her voce in keeping with the regal bearing of a queen, though in this case, a queen who isn't a heroine.  Sarah Fox sang Judith:  Her "Ho! Ye upon the walls! Open to me!" rang out, filling the RFH auditorium with its presence.  To sing like this is quite an achievement, especially as she showed no shrillness. Though we don't see Holofernes’ head being cut off, we hear the emotions that brought it about . The brass screamed in alarm, the chorus singing angular lines evoking horror. Toby Spence, singing Manasseh, had many good moments. In the Intermezzo, when Manasseh repents in Babylon, his voice rang with convicts tion "I will bear the indigantion of God" . Later he sang the lovely "Jerusalem is a city", his voice glowing.   In this scene, where the Hebrews look towards the camp of the Assyrians, tenor, soprano and the voices of the men in the chorus interact so well that it works as effectively as a scene from an opera.  Spence sang Manasseh's  "God breaketh the battle" with near heldentenor ring.  He must have known how Parry had thought of Parsifal, the fool who learned truth, while writing this oratorio.  Henry Waddington sang a very well characterized The High Priest of Moloch and the Messenger of Holofernes, further indication, if any were needed, that Judith is more than oratorio.  Excellent performances too from the Crouch End Chorus and from the young singers who sang the King's Children.

As Judith reached its triumphant conclusion, the exuberance of Parry's writing shone forth : wave after wave of excitement, in the chorus and orchestra, cymbals crashing.  The lights in the Royal Festival Hall lit up, illuminating the whole auditorium in a way we don't often get to see. A truly theatrical ending to a superb experience.   William Vann is recording Parry's Judith for Chandos. Many of those who booked last year when tickets for this perforance went on sale, will be ordering the CD as soon as it's announced.  So what if the Royal Festival Hall was woefully under capacity : better to have an audience (apart from the usual freebie crowd) who know what they're listening to! At least we who were there can say we got to Judith on this unforgettable evening.

Photos: Roger Thomas

Please also see some of my other pieces on Hubert Parry, for example
Parry Symphony no 4, Rumon Gamba, BBC NOW, Chandos.
Parry : English Lyrics SOMM vol  I

Parry : English Lyrics, SOMM vol 2 

Parry : English Lyrics vol 3
Hubert Parry's Jerusalem - more dangerous than you'd think
Parry : The Soul's Ransom 
and much more !


Unknown said...

Terrific news. I hope to get the cd. Please could you post on Facebook about when the cd is released.
The Book of Judith is in both Catholic and Orthodox bibles such as the Jerusalem Bible and the Orthodox Study Bible.

Nathanael said...

Has the recording of Parry's Judith been made yet? And if so where can I find or buy it?

Doundou Tchil said...

hello ! It's in the can, but I don't know when it will be released. Usually takes a few months at least

Nathanael said...

Great! Do you know where I should look for it when it's released? Thanks.