musica Dei donum

CD reviews

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

Cornelia Horak (Israelitish Woman), soprano; Hermine Haselböck Israelitish Man), mezzosoprano; Thomas Künne (Messenger, Priest), alto; Daniel Johannsen (Judas), tenor; Günther Friedrich (Eupolemus), Klemens Sander (Simon), bass
Altenburger Sängerknaben; Wiener Singakademie; Barucco
Dir: Heinz Ferlesch

rec: Nov 16, 2006 (live), Vienna, Konzerthaus, (large auditorium)
ORF - SACD 478 (2 CDs) (© 2006) (2.07'26")

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 own 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 the subject of Judas Maccabaeus 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.
It is remarkable that the oratorio still can make Scottish people feel offended as was proven recently when Judas Maccabaeus was performed at the opening of the Edinburgh International Festival.

This performance has been recorded live and therefore can't be compared to any studio recording. There are some moments when singers and orchestra don't synchronize, for instance in the solo with chorus 'Arm, arm, ye brave!' where the bassoons play colla parte with the bass (Simon). There are some tricky moments in the contributions of Thomas Künne as well. But on the whole there isn't that much wrong with the level of singing and playing.

The interpretation is a different matter. The booklet tells that the Wiener Singakademie is a choir of about 100 singers. I don't know how many were involved in this performance, but it seems to me the choir is too big, in particular in regard to the size of the orchestra, even although that isn't really small with 20 strings. But in the choruses the choir overpowers the orchestra as soon as it sings forte, which happens quite often in this oratorio. In addition the sound of the choir is not as transparent as one would wish, and as a result the choral movements are a bit massive and thick. The Altenburger Sängerknaben only are involved in the first section of the chorus 'See, the conqu'ring hero comes'.

The cast is rather uneven in quality. The main problem is Hermine Haselböck, who sings with a steady, pretty heavy vibrato, in particular in the higher register. In the lower parts of her tessitura it is easier to bear. In her arias this is unpleasant, but it is pretty disastrous in the duets with Cornelia Horak, which are mostly spoilt because of this. Their voices don't blend well anyway. Ms Horak's performances are better and quite expressive, for instance the aria 'Pious orgies, pious airs' (Act 1). But sometimes she misses the point. The aria 'Oh, grant it, Heav'n' (Act 3) says: "So shall the lute and harp awake, and sprightly voice sweet descant run". Sweet her singing is definitely not: it is just too aggressive, and it is the same in the duet with chorus 'Hail, hail, Judea', which doesn't sound as joyful as it should.

Like I said there are some tricky moments in Thomas Künne's singing, but the magnificent air of the Priest, 'Father of Heav'n', which opens the third act, is performed well, technically not perfect but with great expression. And he definitely has a very fine voice, which has a warm and pleasant sound. I find the switch from head to chest voice a bit problematic, though. That is especially the case in the recitative of the First Israelitish Messenger, 'From Capharsalama' in Act 3. Daniel Johannsen makes most of his part, singing the coloraturas in his arias with ease. He is also impressive in his recitatives, which are sung in really declamatory fashion. That is much less the case with Klemens Sander, who is a bit too straightforward in the recitatives. He sings his arias quite beautifully, though, and gives a good account of the part of Simon.

To sum it up, I have mixed feelings about this recording. There are many beautiful moments, in particular the splendorous choruses, and a number of arias are also quite good. But there are just too many weak spots and the interpretation as a whole is a bit one-sided in that the heroic aspects are overweight at the cost of the more sweet and joyful moments. This recording has its merits but can't compete with Robert King's recording (Hyperion, 1992) with a first-class cast and a choir and orchestra which are simply superior to what is on offer here.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Wiener Singakademie

CD Reviews