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Handel: Judas Maccabaeus


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Nicholas McGegan et ses musiciens livrent pour harmonia mundi une vibrante interprétation de la nouvelle édition critique d'Anthony Hicks (avec variantes en appendice)." - Opera News
"Une interprétation subtile et fougueuse... Le choeur mixte chante avec une netteté et une justesse absolument exemplaires." - Gramophone

Ce titre est paru pour la première fois en 1993.
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Amazon.com: 9 reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
The Best for Less! Feb. 24 2008
By Aceto - Published on Amazon.com
Harmonia Mundi is one of the best labels in the world, but very expensive, especially with the dollar vs. euro. This may well be the best performance on CD. It came out in 1995, and still sells for sixty something dollars. This is a recent re-release on their 1+1 line, so it is about one third the price.

This great performance is careful and thoughtful in every detail. Take for example the best known piece of this not very well known choral masterpiece. Act III has the chorus "See the conquering hero...". You will probably recognize it as a familiar Christmas tune, out of place, kind of like that other Handel number. Anyway, most performances fob it off as a single large chorus in order to maximize its draw as the popular chestnut (or bleeding chunk, if you prefer). Here we clearly hear the Chorus of Youths AND the Chorus of Virgins.

Oct 2014 Update
I find I come back to this recording time and again. It does not lose it enjoyment.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
There Might Be Reasons for Skepticism ... Sept. 15 2009
By Giordano Bruno - Published on Amazon.com
... about this performance. Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra has a less-than-consistent history of recordings, ranging from excellent to "okay but...". And there's a choir. Murky, whooshy choral performances by largely amateur university choirs have spoiled scores of scores on CDs, including the awful efforts of The Choir of New College Oxford on the otherwise plausible recording of Judas by The Kings Consort. This time, however, it's the choir that steals the show; the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus is magnificent. It was coached, in 1993 when this recording was made, by John Butt, who has gone on to a career of superb performances of Bach and Handel. The conductor was Nick McGegan, who seems to have a special affinity for Handel. Under his baton, both the orchestra and the choir surpass themselves.

Handel wrote this massive oratorio 'on speculation' - that is, in anticipation of a 'government' victory over the invading Jacobite forces of The Young Pretender in 1745. That victory was not achieved until the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the last-ever military engagement on British soil. Handel was never blind to commercial opportunity; this and other concert pieces he promoted during the war years were intended to stimulate patriotic fervor of the sort that would sell tickets. Judas Maccabaeus is above all a celebratory 'John Bull' oratorio, replete with martial trumpets and pyrotechnic percussion. It's Handel at his most English both in language and in musical affect. In fact, a listening comparison of Judas Maccabaeus with any of the young Handel's Italian cantatas would reveal how completely assimilated the Saxon became to his adopted lands, first to Rome and then to London.

The historical Judas Maccabaeus was the 'resistance' fighting hero against the Syrian occupation of Judea in 168 BCE, still celebrated as The Feast of Lights. The libretto for Handel's oratorio was explicitly dedicated to the Duke of Cumberland, and the premiere performance wasn't offered until 1747, after Culloden. The music is as 'public' and festive as any of Beethoven's later heroic overtures, yet it's full of musical subtleties and passages of virtuosic vocal display. Judas is sung on this recording by tenor Guy de Mey, whose voice is aptly heroic and whose vocal technique is fully capable of the extended sixteenth-not flourishes of the role.

But as I said above, this music is "all about the choir." Forty-seven singers are listed in the UC Chamber Chorus roster. Ordinarily that would amount to an acoustic disaster, but this choir was superbly rehearsed and disciplined. Their tuning is top-notch. Their attacks and releases are precise. Their diction is so clear that one can almost understand most of the words, a rare treat in choral performances of the English language. In fact, their diction is so clear that one can identify their dialect of English; it's pure Californian! (British listeners! Don't be snobbish! 20th C Queen's dialect is no closer to 18th C Hanoverian English than Berkeley is to London.) It helped, one supposes, that the recording was made in the very high-tech sound studio of the George Lucas film industry.

This two-CD re-release comes at a bargain price, but even forgetting the money, this is easily the most attractive performance of Handel's most rousing oratorio. The only complaint one could make is that the text of the libretto is not included. In compensation, there are eight 'bonus' tracks of arias and recitativos that Handel inserted in subsequent performances of Judas Maccabaeus. This was, by the way, the CD my musical friends and I played as we watched the victory results pour in during the 2008 American presidential election. I'll play it again if and when the American Congress has the wisdom to pass a health care reform bill with a meaningful public option.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Judas Maccabaeus Feb. 23 2013
By garden lover - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
Our community oratorio society is singing this oratorio in May. This particular recording was recommended by our director. After listening to it, I understand why. the singing is clear and sharp. Listening to it raises my spirit.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
TAKING THE SMOOTH WITH THE SMOOTH Sept. 29 2012
By DAVID BRYSON - Published on Amazon.com
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.
4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
UCB meeting Handel the blind rebel Dec 8 2009
By Jacques COULARDEAU - Published on Amazon.com
The overture swiftly shifts to dramatic music, both tensely animated and gravely majestic. The first singing is some mourning yet forceful dirge, a call for future struggle and freedom, a successor to dead Mattathias. The story is told by an Israelian man and an Israelian woman: the man is a mezzo-soprano and the woman a soprano. A very feminine story telling though the mezzo-soprano expresses some deep nearly subterranean contradiction, the frustration of captivity, the death of a leader, the still unclear future. The chorus says it all: "With words that weep and tears that speak", beautiful double metaphor and oxymoron. Simon taking over the recitative gives a male profundity to the call and the next aria of the Israelian woman balances the vision between somberness and hope, the hope of salvation from God. The binary style of the language is Shakespearian and very effective when amplified by the music: "And Grant a leader bold and brave, If not to conquer, born to save" And the ternary language of the coming fight is disruptive, as it should be: "In defence of your nation, religion and laws". The whole British nationalism and state of law invested in that religious opera. And this ternary language is amplified at once by Judas Maccabaeus: "Call forth / thy pow'rs, / my soul, // and dare // The con- / flict of un- / -equal war." And this double ternary period (articulated on a in-between iamb) is of course Solomon's number, a basic Jewish symbol, a basic symbol of the greatest British literature and art, the disruption brought by the fight for freedom, a success-bound fight borne by courage, longing and devotion. And this Jewish symbolism is then amplified by the Israelian woman who gives a recitative, then a first aria and a second aria, and the Israelian man comes with a recitative, an aria, and a duet of the two to close up the symbolism. And this long moment in the opera is dedicated to "liberty", introduced as "sweet liberty" by Judas and then amplified by the two Israelian man and woman as "ever-smiling liberty" and five mention of this liberty which makes six with Judas's, thus endorsed by the Israelians as their champion, and blessed by a quadruple binary chorus: "Lead on, / lead on! // Judah / disdains /// The gal- / -ling load // of hos- / -tile chains." That quadruple binary pattern is absolute equilibrium in Shakespeare, and it makes an octagon, the symbol of the resurrection and second coming of Jesus Christ. Handel is a perfect Shakespearian who turns Shakespeare's linguistic music into pure music. The second act starts with a music that is so powerful we know the expected miracle has taken place and that music is based on the hyper dynamic rhythm of a trochee followed by an iamb creating a maelstrom with the inversion of stresses de-multiplied by the music itself. The victory was won and everyone is celebrating it and the newly re-conquered liberty. Handel takes some fine deep pleasure at playing on some iambic rhythm like in Judas's mouth "How vain is man, who boasts in fight" and his playing on the irregularity of the next line makes it great though imperfect: "The valour of gigantic might!" His musical emphasis on "gan" rebalances the uneven rhythm that could only be saved into iamb-anapest-anapest by moving the stress onto "gi", which he refuses to do. The music salvages a bad line and makes it hyper-powerful. That's when he brings the Messenger to announce the bad news of the counter attack of the Egyptians. This moment is crucial in the opera and Handel had kept the male alto in store for it. That male alto brings a voice that stands at odds with all others and that brings the bad news. Simon adds some more musical magic in his aria when he transform the bad line "His glory to raise", iamb-anapest, into a heroic moment. But he can also make a prodigy with a triple binary line like: "and call the brave, // and on- / -ly brave, / around" which is a perfect Solomon's number leaning on the quadruple first half. We get both the balance of the iambic rhythm and the tremendous dynamism of that triple iambic rhythm, a dynamism that leads directly to a military mobilization against the new attack. The second act comes to an end with a declaration of faith in God both extremely powerful and joyful as if the faith in God of the Israelians was able to bring anyone through any challenge. But the third act starts with restraint that also sounds like somber depth, the depth that comes from the consciousness of being one with God and his creation, emphasized by the somber mezzo-soprano voice. The battle is raging and they are expecting the good news of course any time and dreading the bad one any time too. It is the male alto voice of the messenger that brings the news, and it is good. The voice expresses so well the break in the fabric of history and the relief of the people. The celebration of the victory is very tamed and even docile in a way with solos, duets and choruses on joyful airs but with no ostentation, at most a few blaring moments of trumpets and drums, slightly more triumphant towards the end. Judas will bring the real formula of that victorious heroism: Eleazar who "triumph'd in a glorious death". This is nearly a cliché in English culture with Nelson as the archetype of that hero for two centuries. The final touch is given by the representative of Rome who brings the support of the Senate, thus completing the victory. And the opera closes on some praise of the victory but maybe slightly too mundane and too contained and moderate.

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, University Paris 8 Saint Denis, University Paris 12 Créteil, CEGID


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