Blast die Trommet! It’s Handel’s most popular oratorio — at least, in Germany in the eighteenth century. Too martial for twentieth century Brits, of course, which explains why this was its first complete performance at the Proms, but it is full of stunningly beautiful music, by turns swaggeringly bellicose and delicately lyrical. It’s the story of the heroic Maccabees’ struggle against the Seleucids, neatly parallel to the 1745 quashing of the Jacobite rebellion, and this performance assembled a crack team of Handelians to tell it.
Laurence Cummings has this music in his blood, and he directed from the harpsichord as though his life depended upon it. That was just as well, since he had his work cut out to support the singers in this auditorium, a cavernous 7,000-seat space ideal for big meaty voices and lusty choirs, but not so flattering to the kind of light, fluent vocal style required by the composer.
The eponymous hero is one of Handel’s greatest tenor roles, and one which singers such as Fritz Wünderlich and Ernst Haefliger made their own, in different ways. John Mark Ainsley is the very model of a more modern Handelian, his pre-eminence in this music stemming from his stylish phrasing, immaculate diction and stunning agility — and, in the right setting, there is no one who can come near to his ability to machine-gun rapid coloratura. Unfortunately this was not one of those occasions, as he sounded under-powered at times in ‘How vain is man,’ and his ‘Sound an alarm!’ which ought to wake the dead, was graceful rather than rousing. Nevertheless, his skill with words and his unerring instinct for what makes a character believable in oratorio remained impressive throughout.
Rosemary Joshua is Ainsley’s soprano equivalent, and she, too, was not at her silvery, eloquent best, finding the challenging ‘From mighty kings’ a bit of a struggle (who wouldn’t?) and only revealing her accustomed sweetness of tone and fluency in ‘O liberty’ and ‘So shall the lute and harp awake.’ Christine Rice’s burnished, opulent mezzo was most flattered by the hall’s acoustic, and her singing was always confident and polished, especially in ‘Tis liberty.’
Alastair Miles had a difficult task in stepping in for Chrisopher Purves at very short notice, so it’s greatly to his credit that after a slightly rocky ‘Arm, arm, ye brave’ he was able to convey the appropriate ring of authority in ‘Be comforted’ and ‘With pious hearts.’ Tim Mead covered himself in glory in the counter-tenor part, with a ‘Father of Heav’n’ of touching eloquence, showing a true sense of the import of this prayer for a blessing on the ‘Feast of Lights.’ Why, his central plea to God was received in almost complete silence — that is, except for Lady Macbeth on my right, massaging hand cream into her palms, and Doll Tearsheet behind me… but we won’t go there.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment played eloquently under Cummings’ forceful direction, with only a few ragged bars from the brass, and the Choir of the Enlightenment gave a characteristically forthright, word-sensitive performance. ‘See, the conqu’ring hero comes!’ was taken a little fast, but the great ‘Chorus of Israelites’ was ideally commanding. It’s no easy feat to begin an evening with a chorus containing the line ‘Your sanguine hopes of liberty give o’er’ but Handel’s music for that opening is a work of genius in itself. We need to hear Judas Maccabeus more often.