As you would expect, this set has a lot going in its favour. McGegan is a distinguished exponent of early 18th century music and has the idiom off to a T. The Harmonia Mundi label is of proven reliability, and its 1+1 bargain series provides good bargains indeed. The clarity of the choral work is exceptional, credit going to both the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus and the recording engineers (to say nothing of Handel of course). The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra are as effortless and accomplished as you could wish. In which case, what is the drawback that accounts for some lack of enthusiasm expressed in the rating I have given the set?
Basically it's that I find this performance too polished by half. I am fresh from making the acquaintance of McGegan's account of Handel's opera Serse, and the McGegan approach seemed to me to suit it to perfection. Serse is an opera seria that toys with buffa effects. That was enough of a risk for Handel, and Serse as a whole does not try to scale the heights of sublimity, despite the extreme beauty and depth of several of its arias. Urbanity is the name of the game in performing Serse, and McGegan can supply that in spades. Apply the same approach to Judas Maccabaeus and we are left on too low a circle of the Handel Paradiso. It is well-mannered to a fault, but when we are dealing with a work of this stature that is not enough, not nearly enough I should say. My problems with what I have here started when I replayed (after literally decades) my LP version from Mackerras. The first chorus had only gone a few bars when I felt I was dealing with an interpretation on a totally higher plane. Here was the authentic Handelian sense of awe, and it characterised the entire oratorio, leaving McGegan sounding almost prosaic, for all the professional accomplishment that he and his colleagues show.
Mackerras's Handel belongs to the period before the all-out-authentic school got itself firmly established, but I have no problem with that so long as the style is applied with consistency. In any case, once established the authenticists (forgive the term) started to row back a little, and in fact McGegan's way of expressing the style is not all that far from Mackerras's. Considerations of style therefore have not been a factor in the kind of assessment that I am attempting of the two versions. Far more important is the question to what extent the director captures the sense of an Old Testament prophet born out of his time that is the hallmark of Handel's oratorios, and there is no contest in that matter between these two versions in my opinion.
No doubt that is a subjective factor to a great extent. Less subjective is the quality of the soloists, and here I can report that Mackerras has a stellar consort of singers that puts McGegan's performers in the shade. They achieve a clean sweep, and it is an unalloyed pleasure to listen to them. Even without making comparisons, I would have had to enter a note of caution about Patricia Spence, who has the part of the Israelitish Man here. Handel himself cast this part for a contralto, and in fact it is the biggest of all the solo parts. Her style is from the hooty school of English oratorio contraltos, and her intonation is there-or-thereabouts. Mackerras has Baker in this role and...I should stop repeating myself.
One oddity is the percussion effect in `See the conquering hero', where McGegan deploys the side-drum in a most extraordinary way. It doesn't greatly appeal to me, but there may be some specially historical reason for doing it like this. Another thing that has to be mentioned is that the full text is not supplied. This was of no consequence to me as I already had my de luxe copy supplied by DG Archiv. As I said already, the choral enunciation on this pair of discs is of outstanding clarity, but you may not find that to be enough, and I don't know how easy or otherwise it may be to find a copy of Morell's text.
As usual with Handel, there is no `authorised version' of this oratorio, as he kept changing it from one performance to the next. Harmonia Mundi have kindly supplied us with various numbers left on the bench, so to speak, for the purposes of this performance. For this I am properly grateful. It may be that I seem less than fully enthused about the set in toto, but sadly that's the truth of the matter.