Judas Maccabaeus, HWV 63
Deanna Breiwick (soprano), Sophie Harmsen (mezzo-soprano), Owen Willetts (countertenor), João Fernandes (bass); NDR Chor; FestspielOrchester Göttingen/Laurence Cummings
Accent ACC 26410 137:00 mins (2 discs)
This is one of the best Judas Maccabaeus performances ever. As artistic director of the festival where this recording was made, Laurence Cummings brought together top soloists, band and choir, all of whom blaze forth in this masterpiece. If only the oratorio weren’t such rank propaganda! In the spring of 1746, the Duke of Cumberland committed extensive war crimes in the process of crushing the Jacobite rebellion; Judas Maccabaeus celebrates Cumberland’s ‘triumph’ by showing its titular hero uniting the splintered Jewish nation to exterminate an ungodly enemy from within.
Under Handel’s pen, the plot’s mix of individual with collective perspectives becomes a sweeping drama. Many-hued solo laments beguile the ear, brusque solo-chorus exchanges dial up tension, and counterpoint such as the choir’s double fugue in ‘We never, never, will bow down’ signpost true faith. The scoring, as when the drum and trumpet are withheld until Part II (‘Sound an alarm’), is pure genius.
Cummings and his performers vivify all these moments, and many more. To my ear, no choir has done justice to the intricacy of Handel’s writing like the NDR Chor does. Incisive, sensitive and saturated with colour, the choir’s sound moves effortlessly between intentionally nasty and utterly gorgeous. Cummings fuses choir with band, whipping both into a frenzy. Just as tensions reach a breaking point, he steps back to let a soloist re-calibrate the mood. Among the fine talent, Deanna Breiwick stands out: her lyricism soothes even when she sings of suffering. However vile its occasion, Handel’s work is among his most brilliant, and Cummings does it full justice.