Felix Mendelssohn famously resurrected masterpieces from Johann Sebastian Bach that had, unbelievably, slipped into obscurity in the early 19th century. But he didn’t stop there. This set revives Mendelssohn’s reorchestration of Handel’s Israel in Egypt.
The finely detailed booklet essay by Thomas Synfozik (as translated into English by Susan Marie Praeder) explains the circumstances of the work’s creation and its debut. Apparently Mendelssohn’s version of Handel’s oratorio enjoyed some popularity for a time. In the last few decades, however, a greater appreciation has developed for this and other works by Handel as the composer himself set them (admittedly, with innumerable variations for cast and venue differences).
The guiding force of this performance is Hermann Max, whose booklet biography places him as one of the “key figures” in the development of “authentic performance” in Germany. So we have the oxymoron here of inauthentic authenticity - Mendelssohn’s rewrite of Handel for another time’s tastes is played here with respect for the musical traditions of Mendelssohn’s time.
Ultimately, all that matters is the quality of the performance, and the set qualifies as a success. Max’s orchestra, Das Kleine Konzert, suffers from none of the demerits often associated with “historically informed performance.” Strings, though not large in number, do not scratch and rasp, horns do not bleat. Rhythms are flexible yet disciplined.
All of the six soloists - in a piece with relatively few solo arias for its length - all sing well. One of the two sopranos - the track listing makes any further identification impossible - does have such a piercing, high-lying tone that she resembles a boy soprano. That may well be intentional. The Rheinische Kantorei has a dominant role, and they sing with clarity and color.
Mendelssohn’s version as performed here comes in at just a little over 80 minutes, requiring a second disc. For the time being, most fans of Handel’s oratorio will surely prefer to hear his work as he set it, but this makes an entertaining supplement. Also entertaining are the photos of Hermann Max in the booklet, whose remarkable head of hair suggests what Herbert von Karajan would like with an Afro.