Judas Maccabeus - Handel
Review by John Cooper Green:
At this time of discussion about Scottish independence it was perhaps brave of the Penrith Singers to choose to perform Handel’s Oratorio “Judas Maccabaeus”, which celebrates the defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The excellent programme notes also told me that chandeliers in the church were given to the people of Penrith for their help in defeating the Jacobites. The parallel of the conquering hero of this story, “Judas Maccabaeus”, with the Duke of Cumberland proved very popular with English Society. Though not as well-known as “Messiah” this work is full of familiar pieces such as “Arm, arm ye brave”, “Sound an alarm”, “See the conquering hero comes” (frequently sung as the hymn Thine be the glory) and “O lovely peace”.
Colin Marston mustered together a superb group of soloists, an excellent orchestra and his own assured chorus “The Penrith Singers” for a performance of “Judas Maccabaeus” in St. Andrew’s Penrith last Sunday evening. The young team of soloists were without doubt outstanding, all of them had strong voices and we could perhaps have benefitted from a little more orchestra in their arias. Emma Peaurt (soprano) showed herself to be versatile, contrasting power with lightness and a real feeling for the drama. Lucinda Stuart-Grant (mezzo-soprano) has a beautiful voice, full of warmth and her lower notes were particularly good. These two voices blended well together and their duets were beautifully done. Richard Pollock (Tenor) took the part of “Judas Maccabaeus” to which he brought real gravitas: he has an excellent technique and “Sound an alarm” was particularly fine. Finally the baritone soloist – Adam Marsden - who has a very rich and powerful voice was magnificent in his role. His performance of “Arm, arm ye brave” was one to remember.
The orchestra under the leadership of Sue Johnson played extremely well. Special mention must be made of Tina Macrae on ‘cello who supported the singers so well in the recitatives and played so magically in the aria “O liberty, thou choicest treasure”. Also I must mention the excellent obbligato trumpet playing of Stella Fitzgerald in the tenor aria “With honour let desert be crowned”. Although most of the movements are for strings alone the addition of the woodwind, brass and timpani in certain movements gave a wonderful contrast of tonal colour.
The choir were on good form, at their best probably in the chorus “Sing unto God”. The whole ensemble was under pinned by a solid bass line, the soprano line was clear and the altos gave a warmth and richness to the choir. Handel’s tenor lines are always too high and sometimes the tenors struggled with those top notes but otherwise the sound was good. Words were always clear and those difficult long lines were mostly well executed.
If I had any criticisms of the performance I would say that some of the rhythms needed to be more precise, a little more contrast in dynamics would have helped and I felt sometimes the drama lacked pace as we moved from one piece to the next. However, the whole performance was extremely enjoyable with some real high points and great credit to all concerned, particularly Colin Marston who directed the players and singers and trained the choir.