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

Nuria Rial (Israelitish Woman), soprano; Lucia Duchonová (Israelitish Man, Priest), mezzosoprano; Michal Wajda-Chlopicki (Israelitish Messenger), alto; Lothar Odinius (Judas Maccabaeus), tenor; Sergio Foresti (Simon), bass
Schleswig-Holstein Festival Chor Lübeck; Elbipolis Barockorchester Hamburg
Dir: Rolf Beck

rec: Feb 19 - 21, 2010, Plön, Nikolaikirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88697720242 (2 CDs) (© 2010) (2.20'50")

This is the third recording of Handel's oratorio Judas Maccabaeus which has been released in the last years. Previous recordings were conducted by Heinz Ferlesch and Leonardo García Alarcón. It belongs to the better-known and more popular oratorios by Handel, and it is best-known for the famous chorus 'See, see, the conqu'ring hero comes', which in Germany was used for a hymn and also inspired Beethoven for a series of variations for pianoforte and cello.

The subject was deliberately 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. And in this case the supporters of the House of Hanover had even more reason to do so as they had been under the threat of 'Bonnie Prince Charles'. More about the background of this oratorio can be found in the reviews of the above-mentioned recordings.

Of these three recordings this one takes most time. And that is not because the tempi are generally slower but because there are fewer cuts than in the other two. That in itself is praiseworthy. Whereas in the other two recordings the performances of the soloists were uneven, here there is more consistency in this department.

Nuria Rial and Lothar Odinius are the stars of the show. Rial has a fine voice, and excellent diction, and her text expression is mostly very good. The arias 'Pious orgies' and 'O liberty, thou choicest treasure' are two examples. She also performs the recitatives in a truly declamatory style. A particularly telling example of her treatment of the text is the delightful aria 'So shall the lute and harp awake' (act 3). Lothar Odinius shows the same qualities, and I was especially impressed with his differentiated performance of the coloratura passages in his arias. Like Nuria Rial he performs the recitatives very well. The aria 'Call forth thy pow'rs' (act 1) and the aria with chorus 'Sound an alarm' (act 2) are particularly well done.

Lucia Duchonová is mostly rather good, but not of the same level. Her diction isn't always perfect, and she sometimes uses too much vibrato. The aria 'So rapid thy course is' (act 2) is one of the best parts. I was happy to see that she was given the part of the Israelitish Priest, instead of Michal Wajda-Chlopicki whose part is restricted to three recitatives as the Israelitish Messenger. But her performance of the Priest's aria 'Father of Heav'n' which opens Act 3 is disappointing, as her voice is unstable and suffers from a wobble. The duets with Nuria Rial come off well, though. For the role of Simon I would have preferred a somewhat stronger voice, with more presence, than Sergio Foresti's. But he makes the best of it, and his arias in Act 2 are well sung.

The choir is good, but the higher voices use too much vibrato. That is particularly notable in the chorus 'See, the conqu'ring hero comes', where they sing without the male voices. But in the tutti parts of this chorus it produces enough power to make real impression. Most choruses are well realised. The members of the orchestra are not mentioned in the booklet, so I don't know how large it is. But it is my impression that it is too small, and that is a problem this recording shares with many others of vocal works by Handel. What makes it even worse is that the volume of the recording has been too low. The orchestra doesn't have enough presence.

Some arias which are well sung suffer from lacklustre playing, like 'From mighty kings he took the spoil' (act 2). That is also due to Rolf Beck's direction. With all its qualities this recording doesn't fully satisfy. The arias and choruses in the second half of Act 1 are "marked by a mood of joy and confidence", according to Götz Lothar-Darsow in the liner notes. But that doesn't really show in this performance. That this mood is expressed in a rather intimate way is no excuse for bland playing.

As far as I can tell the pronnciation of English is pretty good, although there are some moments where it is notable that none of the singers are native English speakers. The booklet contains liner notes in English and German, as well as the lyrics with a German translation. The members of the choir and the orchestra are not mentioned, nor is there any reference to which parts of the oratorio have been cut.

Overall this recording offers much to enjoy, but still is not the performance which explores Handel's score to the full.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Schleswig-Holstein Festival Chor Lübeck
Elbipolis Barockorchester Hamburg

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