Prom 8, Handel: Judas Maccabaeus

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Laurence Cummings

Royal Albert Hall, 21 July 20124 stars

Laurence CummingsComposed in 1746 and revised in 1750, surprisingly this performance was the Prom debut of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus. Performances of this oratorio tend to be few and far between, yet in Handel’s lifetime – and throughout the 19th century as well as into the 20th century – it was highly regarded and often performed.

Librettist Reverend Thomas Morell took his theme from the Book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha and it describes true historical events between 166 and 164 BC in Judaea. However, the wars between the Israelites and Syrians (Part 1 in the oratorio), then later between the Israelites and Egyptians (Part 2), might have been inspired by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s doomed campaign against the Hanoverian monarchy. In April 1746 the King’s younger son, the Duke of Cumberland, defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden. Still in the same year and possibly to celebrate the Hanoverian victory, Morell and Handel created Judas Maccabaeus.    

Conductor Laurence Cummings, his team of excellent soloists, the Choir of the Enlightenment and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gave a highly enjoyable performance. But some discrepancies in the programme notes were irritating and some musical decisions surprising.

The text of the libretto printed in the programme notes far too often did not correspond with what we heard. There were some cuts which were easy enough to comprehend (although it is still not clear why Morell’s text was printed in full for this performance which was given with substantial changes). We did not hear No. 17 (Recitative), No. 31 (Duet), No. 32 (Chorus), No. 33 (Recitative) and No. 50 (Air). On the other hand, there were some arias inserted which were neither printed nor indicated in the programme notes. We heard a beautiful aria in gentle 3/4 time between No. 25 (Recitative) and No. 26 (Chorus of Israelites). It was superbly sung by mezzo Christine Rice, but there was no way of knowing where this aria came from and what it was about. Rice also delighted with a deeply moving and masterly performed aria in place of Nos. 31-33. The most confusing insert came during No. 57 that is during a recitative by the First Messenger. We heard a glorius 3/4 aria about half-way during the recitative, sang with almost unbelievable perfection by counter-tenor Tim Mead. But what was he singing? However, the last discrepancy between programme notes and performance was very easy to understand: although the No. 66 Air (Oh lovely peace) was specified in the notes as a single aria, as it is indeed shown as such in my score, here it turned into a lovely duet by soprano Rosemary Joshua and Rice.

Without doubt Laurence Cummings knows and loves his Handel. But, for me, some of his tempi were so fast that the character of the music got lost. He treated the Overture as a fast but gracious dance yet the dotted rhythms might indicate a more majestic mood. Some choral numbers were also rushed, in particular the ‘See, the conqu’ring hero comes’. (Here the lines ‘Sports prepare, the laurel bring, Songs of triumph to him sing’ did of course remind of our current Olympic preparations) However, most of Cumming’s musical choices were convincing and a pleasure to listen to.  In ‘Hail, hail, Judea’ the Chorus of Israelites were majestic while their ‘Ah! Wretched Israel’ was atmospheric with some hushed pianissimos. At the end of Part 2, that is on conclusion of the chorus ‘We never, never will bow down, the audience (silent up to this point between numbers) broke into applause although Part 3 followed without a break. This spontaneous applause was fully justified after the powerful interpretation of the whole number, in particular the lines ‘We worship God, and God alone.’ by Cummings and the excellent choir.

Of the excellent team of solo singers, pride of place must go to bass Alistair Miles who stepped in to replace the indisposed baritone Christopher Purves at very short notice. Miles (as Simon/Eupolemus) was authorative with a clear diction, musical intelligence and stage presence. He was more heroic than tenor John Mark Ainsley (the hero Judas Maccabeus), who, nevertherless, negotiated his virtuoso passages with flair and care while also making musical sense. Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice (Israelitish Man) made good use of her rich, velvety sound as well as her vast Handelian experience. Rosemary Joshua (Israelitish Woman) might have had slight vocal problems on the night. Her pitching was not always perfect and her vibrato somewhat larger than what one is used to in historically informed performances. Nevertheless, Joshua too delivered her part with musical insight.
Counter-tenor Tim Mead (Israelitish Messenger/Priest) provided beauty and skills which should be compulsory to listen to by all aspiring baroque singers. His breath control was simply awe-inspiring; his vocal delivery (totally without any vibrato) served the musical content admirably.              

 The orchestra supported Cummings’ gentle (rather than heroic) approach to the score with its warm sound. Their trumpet player, David Blackadder (if the programme notes are correct), produced an extra-ordinary gentle and cantabile reading of his obbligato part to the tenor aria ‘With honour let desert be crown’d’. And cellist Jonathan Manson also excelled with his stylish and disciplined solos to ‘Oh liberty, thou choicest treasure’ and ‘Ah, wretched Israel’.

There was plenty to admire and enjoy during this performance of Judas Maccabaeus, even though the heroic element seemed missing.

By Agnes Kory