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