“I’ve got a tune that will knock ’em flat,” declared Elgar in 1901 on completing his Pomp and Circumstance March no. 1. Sir Edward knew a good thing when he wrote it. Alas for his less fêted contemporary, Hubert Parry (1848-1918), he died without realising he’d achieved much the same in his oratorio Judith.

Hubert Parry © Public domain
Hubert Parry
© Public domain

Parry is best remembered for Jerusalem and the coronation anthem I Was Glad, so he was no stranger to big choral statements. Blest Pair of Sirens and the Songs of Farewell remain cornerstones of the Anglican repertoire to this day; yet little if anything he wrote stirs the soul like Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, a hymn tune lifted from the contralto aria "Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land". It owes its lasting fame to one Gilbert Stocks, director of music at Repton School, who filched it for the common good six years after the composer’s death. Ironically it’s the only fragment of Judith to have reached London in over a hundred years. The 20th century passed it by completely.

It isn’t difficult to see why that is, even though zero performances in that time seems harsh. Any 130-minute score needs to propel the audience’s attention through a lucid text and vivid music and Judith falls short on both counts. Yet it is proficiently composed and avoids the pitfalls of much Victoriana, so this long-overdue airing, masterminded by the dynamic conductor William Vann (and soon to be recorded for Chandos), made for an absorbing experience.

Behind the occluded storytelling is a tale from the Apocrypha in which saintly Judith beds and beheads a dastardly villain, Assur, during the reign of Manasseh in Old Testament Judah. Soprano Sarah Fox, on fine form, bore the brunt of the score in the title role and was rewarded with meandering solos in which things came to pass and the Lord got forsaken a fair bit. (Parry’s text – his own – is not great. It features a good deal of smiting but little specific action.) Only in Part Two does Parry give Judith a haloed moment, with gorgeous music for “I pray thee, O God of my fathers, / Thou God of the inheritance of Israel, / Hear thou my prayer!”.

Fox was part of an exceptionally distinguished solo quartet. Toby Spence gave an impassioned account of Manesseh, another smiter (it was quite a night for smiting), while Henry Waddington interpolated his two short bass roles with accustomed authority. It fell to mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge to deliver the big tune, here a story of past oppressions that she shares with her children. It was a spine-tingling episode.

The London Mozart Players responded wonderfully to Vann’s energetic and pinpoint-clear baton work, although the chamber-sized string contingent was overwhelmed in Parry’s symphonic-scale score by the full-strength sections elsewhere. The evening’s absolute stars, though, were the Crouch End Festival Chorus, one of London’s finest big choirs, and a superb 12-strong children’s choir of unspecified provenance. The latter featured an astonishingly poised solo from young Lydia South, the memory of which I’ll treasure long after the smiting is forgotten.

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