Review of Spring Concert 2017 – Judas Maccabeus at Edensor
In the 46 years since its foundation Baslow Choir has never previously performed Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus. Perhaps the reason lay in the obscurity of its subject. On Saturday evening, by serendipitous chance on the precise anniversary of the work’s premiere at the Covent Garden Theatre on April 1st, 1747, the omission was righted and the choir’s performance at St Peter’s Church in Edensor revealed enchanting music every bit as enjoyable as anything its composer wrote.
The oratorio’s best known chorus ‘See the conquering hero comes…’ has been argued to have had topical relevance in celebrating the Duke of Cumberland’s victory at Culloden the previous year but the story it tells is more venerable, from the 160s BC, its characters drawn from the remote reaches of the Old Testament Apocrypha. It seems inauspicious yet Handel injects librettist Thomas Morell’s concise narrative with drive and purpose, though in truth the narrative matters little, being merely a line to hang a string of choral and vocal jewels on. In the airs at times even words themselves cease to matter much as Handel distorts and stretches syllables and vowels over extended runs of repeated notes designed to offer his soloists maximum opportunity to display their virtuosity; there is little doubt that singers of his day exulted in such competitive rivalry.
It was an invitation seized with panache and flair by soprano Rachel Abbott who trilled seemingly endless vowels with relish yet still building, with a delightful twinkle in her eye, to the resounding climax in which the sense of the words clearly does matter again, notably in the air ‘From mighty kings he took the spoil…’. Hers was a bravura performance throughout, delivered with élan and infectious enthusiasm.
Indeed, all the soloists rose to the considerable challenges Handel sets them. In the duet ‘Come, ever-smiling liberty…’ Rachel was joined by mezzo Kate Huddie in a lovely interweaving of melodic lines, Handel, as ever, investing minimum words with musical treasures in many notes. Equally imposing was bass Daniel Sumner who brought compelling depth to the majesty of tone required by lines like ‘The Almighty Jehovah will strengthen your hands.’ He too tackled with clear enjoyment extended warbling on ‘wonders’ and ‘glories’ in the air ‘The Lord worketh wonders…’ Tenor Stewart Campbell sang the part of the eponymous Judas with growing conviction, delivering the work’s second-most celebrated air with substantial pomp and flourish; those singers performing with an orchestra have striking trumpet support at this point but Stewart, with the energetic backing of organist Andrew Cummings, achieved the urgency necessary to ‘sound an alarm’. The fifth soloist, counter-tenor Nick Cox, brought a sure touch of line and diction to enliven the narration leading to the choral extravaganza of ‘See the conquering hero…’
As in the other chorus sections the choir here demonstrated its confidence and ability under the quietly restrained direction of Andrew Marples to bring a professional finish to Handel’s sometimes complex and demanding writing with all sections managing to range from hushed emotion to declamatory climax, all voices satisfyingly balanced in this beautiful church’s excellent acoustic.
A jewel of a performance in a jewel of the Peaks: it is to be hoped that a reprise will not have to wait before another half century has elapsed. Or perhaps they may choose to lift other worthy oratorios from relative obscurity. When they do, don’t miss it.