The London Mozart Players and Crouch End Festival Chorus gave a generally excellent account, on Wednesday evening, of Parry’s oratorio Judith – the piece’s first full London outing for nearly 130 years.
The chorus were on form, tackling the contrapuntal entries with verve and precision, and while the bass section was the least audible, there were some magnificently full-on walls of sound (particularly in Act 2); the final ‘And he shall lead Israel …’ was presented with the same full-throated exultation usually given to Blest Pair of Sirens (to which, with its held pedal and staggered entries, it bears close resemblance). The conversational elements (such as the interleaved dialogue of worshippers and the High Priest in the first scene) were slick, and the children’s choir (singing without scores) was superb.
The orchestra, too, played well, and the subtle shadings of Parry’s orchestration – brass that can be warm or martial; lush strings (although a couple of extra desks would’t have gone amiss), and Parry’s trademark woodwind decorations – were brought out to perfection. The orchestral introduction to the second-Act Intermezzo, particularly, was exquisite in its balance and tone. William Vann, directing, ensured that Romanticism ruled, but passages didn’t drag.
Of the soloists, the most consistently excellent was the bass Henry Waddington, whose top vocal harmonics provided an edge such that his High Priest exuded menace, and his Messenger displayed disdainful bravura. Toby Spence, singing King Manasseh, gave us just the right kind of English-lyric tenor for the role, and his two Bach-derivative arias (‘I will bear the indignation’ and ‘God breaketh the battle’) were sung with fervour, albeit that, elsewhere there was the occasional touch of a rasp. Sarah Fox has a soprano head-voice that’s strong, clear and sweet, and it worked well for Judith’s more stirring moments, such as the ‘O Lord, Thou art glorious’ of the finale. Parry doesn’t allocate voice classifications to his soloists, but the part of Meshullemeth contains a deal of motherly chest voice. Lower-part female soloists these days bill themselves as ‘mezzo’, but there are mezzos and mezzos; the sweet richness of Kathryn Rudge’s voice continues to the top of the stave (and her performance of the star aria ‘Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land’ was faultless), but, her lower register lacks heft, and the part could have benefited from the fruitiness of an old-fashioned contralto.
Sadly, though, the piece failed to thrill – and this was mostly down to its composer. One of Shaw’s more polite criticisms of Parry was that he was ‘academic’, and here, he was on the money. The counterpoint writing is flawless (and goodness, there is no end to the fugues); the orchestration is luxuriant and deftly applied; the musical homage to Bach is intelligently developed. But the work is mostly, alas, uninspiring, particularly the first half. Apart from the aria ‘Long since …’, which has survived as the hymn-tune ‘Repton’, there’s barely a moment of the piece one feels that Parry after writing it, rushed out and (as it were) punched the air. The choruses to Moloch should sit somewhere between Mendelssohn’s athletically abandoned ‘Baal, we cry to thee’ and the rebarbative harmonies of Elgar’s demons’ chorus. But no; stuck in major keys they remain too jolly, and Judith’s reprimands feel no more biblically portentous than Mabel’s scolding of Gilbert’s pirates; one longs for moral commentary from the musical material (after all, children are being thrown into a furnace), but the picnic-at-Hinnom atmosphere pervades. The arias contain elegantly instrumented mood changes, and their codas call for soaring Elgarian turbocharges; they remain, however, prosaic, with pattern-book cadential closes. It’s a solidly-constructed fuselage, but it has no wings.