Once seen, never forgotten: such is the visceral power of Caravaggio’s image of a young Judith severing the head of a shocked Holofernes. It is possible that Parry was familiar with this image and others like it, as his father had a keen interest in early Italian art.
In any event, despite his aversion to mainstream Christianity, Parry was encouraged by the 1888 Birmingham Music Festival to produce an oratorio on a biblical theme. The result was Judith. Cast in two acts, the subject matter is blood-thirsty: the first deals with the sacrifice of the children of King Manasseh to the god Moloch and the second depicts with the rout of the Assyrian invasion of Jerusalem and the decapitation of Holofernes by Judith.
Apart from the notable exception of George Bernard Shaw, audiences and critics warmed to Judith, but in the 20th century Parry’s music went out of favour; the critic RO Morris labelling Parry’s oratorios “noble failures”. In our own time scholars such as Jeremy Dibble (who contributes excellent notes to this recording) have done much to revive the composer’s reputation.
Eschewing the influence of Wagner and not yet knowing the exotic influences that were to flow from the Paris Exposition of 1889, Parry does struggle at times to maintain dramatic impetus across his lengthy libretto. There are, however, moments of great beauty, the most famous of which is the ballad sung by Meshullemeth, Manasseh’s queen. This was adapted early last century into the hymn tune Repton, sung to the text Dear Lord and Father of mankind by Quaker, John Greenleaf Whittier. The original conception with its interludes and variations is a gem and shows Parry capable of exquisite harmonies and sophisticated orchestral colouring. Parry’s use of extended orchestral interludes and his linking of one number to another also provides an important stepping stone to later works such as Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius.
There is no doubting the commitment that William Vann and his co-artists bring to this unjustly neglected score. The unflagging energy of the Crouch End Festival Chorus is impressive, as are the uniformly communicative soloists.
Soprano, Sarah Fox thrillingly inhabits the character of Judith, providing a number of commanding rallying cries throughout the work. Kathryn Rudge possesses that wonderfully rich mezzo sound which is a mainstay of English oratorios, and brings maternal warmth to Meshullemeth. Tenor, Toby Spence is no stranger to Parry’s music, having recorded Job some years ago. His idiomatic singing of Manasseh underlines the king’s humanity. Henry Waddington brings sinister authority to his twin roles of High Priest of Moloch and Messenger of Holofernes.
This first complete recording is a significant contribution to the Parry discography and will hopefully inspire some live performances, for the choral and orchestral writing provide plenty of satisfying material for the performers. Remembering that Parry was a victim of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, he would have surely understood that this may take some time to achieve.
Performers: Sarah Fox s, Kathryn Rudge ms, Toby Spence t, Henry Waddington b-bar, Crouch End Festival Chorus, London Mozart Players/Vann
Label: Chandos CHAN5268 (2SACD)