George Frideric Handel’s Messiah has become such a Christmastime tradition that it can sometimes obscure the rest of his large body of wonderful choral and orchestral music. One oratorio we get to hear far less often is Judas Maccabeus, written a few years after Messiah and first performed in 1747 at the Royal Opera House in London. As it recounts the story of Chanukah, it’s as appropriate for the holiday season as any “Hallelujah” Chorus.
Thanks to the generosity of Dr. Barbaralee Diamondstein-Spielvogel, on Dec. 1 a large audience was treated to a fine performance by the Clarion Choir and Clarion Orchestra of selections from Judas Maccabeus. Also on the program were excerpts from several Handel operas. The choir and original-instrument orchestra performed in New York City’s acoustically excellent Temple Emanu-El, with mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as soloists.
If I had my druthers I would always hear Handel on original instruments. The mellower sound, especially of the strings, allows the beauty of the music-as-written to shine more clearly, free of harsh attacks and overly-vivid crispness. I noted this right away in the Overture, where the strings played with great delicacy and just enough assertiveness, speaking rather than declaiming. And skipping ahead to the second half of the concert: The stately orchestral piece “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” (from Handel’s Solomon) relies on exposed harmony passages from the woodwinds, and in these I kept thinking I was hearing a human voice. Baroque-era wind instruments can have this effect.
Timbre aside, Handel could brilliantly depict complex and powerful scenes and emotions using a limited contemporary musical vocabulary of harmonies, scales, arpeggios, and cadences. In the Clarion’s performance of Judas Maccabeus you could easily hear devastation in the striking “Mourn, Ye Afflicted Children” chorus, and pleading and hope in “Hear Us, O Lord.” Throughout, the Clarion Choir led by Steven Fox sang with remarkable balance, all parts distinct, without overweening sopranos or mumbled inner voices. This held true even when the oratorio’s hit tune, “See the Conquering Hero,” resounded with martial sternness.
Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard sang in cool bronze tones, liquid and full. She was especially impressive in the evening’s second half, which consisted mostly of arias from Handel operas such as Giulio Cesare and Alcina. Leonard crystallized a wonderful vibrato and navigated scales and intervals with ease at high and low volumes alike. The contemplative “Verdi prati” engaged her rich lower register, with backing from some of Handel’s most beautiful orchestral writing.
Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo brought finely wrought emotional subtlety to the recitative-like “Svegliatevi nel core.” A countertenor’s lower register is typically, and understandably, a region of lesser power; Costanzo proved just as musically strong in the depths as in the heights. “Vivi Tiranno,” an over-the-top showpiece, allowed him to show off his crowd-pleasing melismatic skill.
The two singers joined forces in the divine mother-and-son duet “Son nata a lagrimar,” where Handel seems to look ahead to Mozart. And if I may make an even bigger time jump, Philip Glass’s minimalism has nothing on the orchestral introduction to the evening’s final piece, “Zadok the priest…”, Handel’s celebration of a British coronation through a Biblical lens. When the choir enters thunderously and “all the people rejoiced,” I imagined I could actually hear the composer rejoicing as he wrote it.
I sat very far back in the huge synagogue, yet could hear every instrument clearly (even the theorbo!) and every choral part. Superb balance between and within the choir and orchestra combined with the space’s natural resonance to make the evening feel lofty and magical. Even phones going off right and left in the audience – how in the world can people still be so rude and forgetful after all these years of having mobile devices?! – couldn’t spoil it. At least not for me.
Whether you celebrate Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, something else (Festivus?), or no winter holiday at all, seek out a live performance of Handel’s Judas Maccabeus at any time of year. Failing that, listen to a recording. With luck it will have the glorious musicality the Clarion Society’s ensembles brought to it in New York the other night.
Visit the Clarion website for upcoming events.