‘When a man takes it upon himself to write an oratorio — perhaps the most gratuitous exploit open to a 19th-century Englishman — he must take the consequences,’ wrote George Bernard Shaw, reviewing Parry’s oratorio Judith in 1888. The consequences for Judith seem to have been unusually drastic. Premiered at the Birmingham Triennial Festival, it was a major success: if not quite on the scale of its obvious model, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, then certainly not far behind it. And then it vanished. The most recent UK performance seems to have been in 1951, and while enterprising record labels have blown the dust off Victoriana ranging from Sullivan’s Kenilworth to Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D, there’s no recording of Judith. It’s baffling, and you can’t even blame the patriarchy.
So this revival by the Crouch End Festival Chorus, conducted by William Vann, had the feeling of a world première. The piece itself spreads over two leisurely acts, and while Victorian audiences might well have been familiar with such Old Testament worthies as Manasseh and Meshullemeth, the tale of Judith’s seduction and decapitation of Holofernes has set painters salivating for centuries. Sure enough, Klimt’s flushed, bare-breasted temptress smouldered back at us from the pages of the programme book, raising expectations to a dangerous level. Parry attended the première of Wagner’s Parsifal in 1882: were we about to hear, at last, the decadent sensualist who had been hiding for all these years behind ‘I Was Glad’ and ‘Jerusalem’?
Not a chance. There were some effective touches of orchestration: baleful clouds of low brass, deep, rumbling organ pedals and a pair of gongs, jangling and shimmering their way through the first act’s hymns to the child-devouring god Moloch (the children’s choir was excellent, until it got eaten). Choruses rear up like monuments: Parry’s strapping fugal build-ups come straight out of Handel and there’s no better model. In between, he weaves yard upon yard of golden, flowing music, tinted with wistful clarinets and horns. Sarah Fox, as Judith, soared above it all with rich, glowing phrases, while Kathryn Rudge (Meshullemeth) was bright and sweet in her aria ‘Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land’, whose melody later became the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, and which in a fairer universe should have guaranteed Judith’s immortality.
In this one, however, the fact that the work’s single greatest melodic inspiration ended up as a hymn says it all. For every moment of quiet exaltation (and Parry is unbeatable at that), there’s an instance of pure bathos. The Holofernes episode is kept demurely offstage, and Parry delays the final climax with an interminable mock-Handel aria for Manasseh, presumably because he felt that at this point his audience expected a bit of warbling over a clunky bass. Toby Spence went at it like a hero, regardless. And then Judith herself sweeps back in on a surge of orchestral sound, hinting at the sensuality that’s been missing just when it’s become clear that we’re not going to get it.
The final chorus — like the choral singing throughout the evening — was as lucid as it was lively; in fact the whole performance was as splendid as anyone can possibly have expected after all these years, with Vann manfully resisting the twin temptations of bombast and sentimentality. ‘There is not a rhythm in it, not a progression, not a modulation that brings a breath of freshness with it,’ thundered Shaw, who needed to lighten up. But since this spirited and necessary performance was recorded by Chandos, you’ll soon be in a position — for the first time in a generation — to judge for yourself.