musica Dei donum

CD reviews

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Judas Maccabaeus, oratorio in 3 parts (HWV 63)

Maria Soledad de la Rosa (Israelitish Woman), soprano; Mariana Rewerski (Israelitish Man), mezzosoprano; Fabián Schofrin (Messenger, Priest), alto; Makoto Sakurada (Judas Maccabaeus), tenor; Étienne Debaisieux (Eupolemus), Alejandro Meerapfel (Judas), bass
Choeur de Chambre de Namur; Les Agrémens
Dir: Leonardo García Alarcón

rec: Sept 26, 2009 (live), Ambronay, Abbaye
Ambronay Éditions - AMY024 (2 CDs) (© 2009) (2.10'10")

In 1745 the English monarchy was going through difficult times. The Hanover dynasty faced an invasion from Scotland by prince Charles Edward, descendant from the Stuart dynasty and pretender to the throne of England and Scotland. 'Bonnie Prince Charles', as he was called, enjoyed considerable support in Scotland and he had already started the invasion of England, when the English armies were still in Flanders. They were called back quickly in order to fight Charles Edward. What made the situation even more dangerous was that the Hanover dynasty wasn't embraced by everyone in England either.

Handel's standpoint was crystal clear. He had close ties to the Hanover dynasty and had written music for them, and moreover they were from his native country. While the battle still continued he composed his Occasional Oratorio which the British conductor Robert King, in the programme notes of his recording of Judas Maccabaeus, characterises as "a piece of propaganda encouraging the loyalists".
The libretto of Judas Maccabaeus was written by reverend Thomas Morell, and it was the first time Handel cooperated with him. Also new was the fact that the performance was open to everyone, without previous subscription. Judas Maccabaeus was first performed on 1 April 1747 and "went off with very great Applause", according to Lord Shaftesbury, a long-time friend and patron of Handel.

The oratorio was performed to celebrate the victory of the Duke of Cumberland over the army of 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' and his Scottish supporters. The famous chorus 'See, the conqu'ring hero comes' directly related to the Duke.
It is no coincidence that this subject was chosen. Judas Maccabeus led the Jewish people in recapturing their temple from Syrian occupying forces in 164 B.C., according to the apocryphal books of the Bible, known as 1 and 2 Maccabees. This kind of subjects were especially popular as the English people identified themselves with the people of Israel.

Susanne Aspden, in her programme notes, states that Judas Maccabaeus is not as dramatic as some other oratorios by Handel. "Although there is certainly a plot (...) that plot is not expressed in overly 'dramatic' terms: there are only two significant named characters (Judas and Simon Maccabaeus), and the conflict between the Israelites and the Syrians is only described at second hand, because the Syrians have no musical presence. The focus is exclusively on the Israelites' emotional responses - by turns fearful and resolute, mournful and bellicose - to the Syrian threat."

Does director García Alarcón try to belie this? That could explain why he pressures the tempi so much. Most choruses and arias at taken at pretty high speed. In addition most of them are also sung at a quite high volume. After a while it becomes a little too much. I sometimes had the feeling of being in a pressure cooker. A bit more relaxation hadn't been amiss. I also think this recording suffers from the fact that it was made during a live performance. Because of that there are some loose ends - a bit too many, in my view.

The highlights of this performance are the choruses. That is mainly due to the Choeur de Chambre de Namur, which has been involved in many recordings of early music. It is an excellent ensemble, and the 20 singers give splendid performances of the many choruses in this oratorio. The chorus 'Hear us, O Lord' which closes the first part, and the opening chorus of the second part, 'Fall'n is the foe', are just two examples. The choir can be powerful but also subtle, and sings with great understanding.

The merit of the cast is that they are a stylistic unity. There is no singer whose performances are at odds with those of his or her colleagues. They all have nice voices which are well suited to this repertoire. But none of them is completely satisfying. What is common to the performances of all singers is that too little attention has been paid to the text. There is too little differentiation between words and syllables to make the performances truly speechlike - as they should be.

There are differences between them, though. Makoto Sakurada is too one-dimensional in his interpretation of the role of Judas Maccabaeus. The aria 'How vain is man', for instance, lacks distinction, and here and elsewhere he often sings too loud. Alejandro Meerapfel's voice is a bit on the rough side and lacks some subtlety, like in the aria 'Pious orgies, pious airs'. Fabián Schofrin is not relaxed enough in his aria 'Father of Heaven' which opens the third part. There is also too little differentiation here.

The two ladies have some duets to sing, and these are generally well sung. Their voices blend well, and there is a good balance between them. These as well as their arias belong to the more satisfying aspects of this recording. The aria of the Israelitish Woman, 'From mighty kings', is particularly well done, with good expression and impressive coloraturas.

Problematic is the pronunciation and the diction of the singers. None of them is a native English speaker, and that shows. A language coach had not been amiss, and could have precluded the strange vowels the singers sometimes produce, and the inconsistencies in the pronunciation between them. The diction also leaves something to be desired, and here the fast tempi make things even more difficult for singers who have to sing in a foreign language. All such things could have been prevented in a studio recording.

I have already noticed the fast tempi. Because of that the music seldom breathes, and the chorus 'See! The conqu'ring hero comes' isn't very dance-like. The recitatives are also mostly fast, but unfortunately often rhythmically too strict. It is again a token that this performance is just not very speech-like.

I don't want to give the impression that this is a bad recording. There is plenty to enjoy, and the general quality of singing and playing is high. But as an interpretation of this oratorio it just leaves too much to be desired to be really convincing.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Choeur de Chambre de Namur
Les Agrémens

CD Reviews