Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus might not have much of a dramatic narrative – all the action occurs in intervals or offstage – but it is an exciting celebration of the triumph of the Butcher of Cumberland at Culloden (I feel my Scottish ancestors rolling in their graves). As usual with Handel’s oratorios, the Israelites represent the Protestants, and their enemies (the Seleucids in this case) personify the Jacobites. The performances I have heard of this work previously have all been rather ordinary, leading one to think it is not of the first Handelian rank, but this rendition at the Göttingen International Handel Festival swept all that away and revealed a musical masterpiece commensurate with, for example, Solomon, which has an equally thin dramatic arc.

Kenneth Tarver
© Alciro Theodoro da Silva

The version chosen for performance was the original 1747 version. This was written without its most recognised element, the chorus “See the conqu’ring hero comes”, which Handel wrote for Joshua later the same year; four years later he recognised its aptitude for Judas and included it, but this performance did not. A couple of small cuts were made, of recitative and the duet and chorus “Sion now her head shall raise”.

The FestspielOrchester Göttingen under the direction of Laurence Cummings is now one of, if not the, outstanding Baroque orchestras of the modern day, and possibly ever. Every performance is one to treasure, which brings out the glories of Handel’s music and its emotional impact. Concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock was alert to every turn of the music, with the great support of the continuo group led by cellist Phoebe Carrai, and wonderful musicians in every other section. In this particular performance, one noticed especially the oboes (Susanne Regel and Kristin Linde) and the three trumpeters, David Staff, Russell Gilmour and Ruuprecht Drees.

The NDR Choir under David Cavelius has become a force to be reckoned with in English oratorio, their diction well nigh impeccable (far clearer than many native speaking choirs), as well as embodying the discipline to blend as one and create subtle textured dynamics, as heard in the first chorus.

The solo singing too was exemplary. In the title role, Kenneth Tarver was simply amazing, representing a still point in a sea of swirling emotion. He commanded the stage with his smooth but ringing tenor, barely moving a muscle while simultaneously conveying every nuance of the text. Both power and flexibility were evident in the more florid arias, with really nicely articulated coloratura. Young American soprano Deanna Breiwick sang the Israelite Woman with a clear clean soprano and very sweet top notes, a nice cadenza in the B section of “From mighty kings” and a stunning one in “So shall the lute”. She was well paired with mezzo Sophie Harmsen, with contrasting warm chocolatey tone and equal flexibility. All their duets were a joy, with perhaps just a tiny smile hovering on both sets of lips in the not quite risible repetitions of wavy corn.

Judas Maccabaeus at Göttingen
© Alciro Theodoro da Silva

Portuguese bass João Fernandes was a delight as Simon and Eupolemus, bringing to bear his rich resonant tone and reliable bottom notes, along with a very different but equally compelling charisma to Tarver. His passage work was equally adept, particularly noticeable in “The Lord worketh wonders”. A touch of Rolls Royce casting was evident in having the tiny role of the Priest sung by countertenor Owen Willetts (he is also appearing in the opera). The slightly larger, if aria free, role of the messenger was delivered with dramatic flair by Ina Jaks.

The reception was close to ecstatic. Cummings left the stage and returned a couple of times, the second time announcing that there would be an encore – “See the conqu’ring hero” – so no-one would go home disappointed.