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Reviews

12 May 2019

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Israel in Egypt: BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court Concert Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Gergey Madaras

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

 

The first performance, in London on 4th April 1739, was not well-received. Handel made alterations for subsequent performances - initially importing arias from earlier Italian works. When Handel’s amanuensis John Christopher Smith revived Israel in Egypt in 1756, he created a kind of pasticcio from elements from his other late oratorios. But, contemporary audiences seem to have remained perplexed by the daring dominance of the choral numbers. The latter feature was a ‘hang-over’ from the grandeur and magnificence which had been necessary for the original context of Part 1 of the oratorio, which had been adapted from Handel’s Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline.

Today, Israel in Egypt is most frequently performed without Part 1, commencing with the account of the Exodus - despite the fact that Handel himself retained the Funeral Anthem material for other 1739 performances and never sanctioned beginning with the solo tenor’s recitative ‘Now there arose a new king’ (though the 1756 version mentioned above had omitted the Funeral Music).

And it was this 1756 version that we heard here at Milton Court Concert Hall, performed by the BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Gergely Madaras. Yet, while we had neither the work’s original first part nor, consequently, the full roster of solo arias, we did have a small chorus which, if it struggled a little initially to conjure sufficient strength and majesty, had stamina and spirit, and presented a performance which grew in narrative coherence and dramatic intensity.

The small forces and fairly intimate venue lent clarity, and the BBC Singers’ textual declamation was consistently rigorous. The choral singing initially lacked robustness, however - I found the account by alto soloist Nancy Cole and the Chorus of the cries of Israelites in bondage a little hesitant and diffuse, lacking rhythmic definition - as well as warmth and richness. The balance between men and women also seemed unsettled, and the sopranos’ tone a little thin and reedy at times.

Moments of momentousness underwhelmed: the assault of hailstones mingled with fire should chill the blood, but despite the stirring efforts of timpanist Benedict Hoffnung and the trombonists (Stephanie Mauncey Dyer, Tom Lees and Adrian France), I did not quake or tremble. In choruses such as those presenting the account of the people led ‘forth like sheep’ from a fearful Egypt glad of their departure, Madaras didn’t convincingly build expansive textures. Though dynamic contrasts were effective in ‘He rebuked the Red Sea, and it was dried up’, the choral forces simply seemed too small, lost behind the vigorous orchestral sound. Similarly, Madaras didn’t create sufficient drama from the dissonance and chromatic contortions which depict the ‘thick darkness’ that descends over all the land, and here the organ (Jan Waterfield) overshadowed the pianissimo voices.

Fortunately, the post-interval ‘Moses’ Song’ found the dramatic momentum and energy which had previously been lacking, as Moses and the children of Israel sang the Lord’s praises with persuasive spirit and strength. Madaras shaped the light counterpoint of ‘He is my God’ with skill and a sure sense of direction; the ‘Blast of thy nostrils’ that gathered the waters together made the spine tingle. Tempi were well-measured and created impetus.

To precede the opening recitative, Madaras chose the sinfonia of the Funeral Anthem and here the organ was a strong presence, dark and weighty, while the overall instrumental texture had real character, and sometimes treacly colour and texture. Throughout the instrumental playing was vigorous, the textures transparent, the collective spirit alert and energised.

The soloists were drawn from the BBC Singers. Tenor Tom Raskin informed us at the start of the new Egyptian king who afflicted Israelites and ‘made them serve with rigour’, his tenor fairly bristling with indignation; Raskin worked hard with the text, perhaps overly so at times, in relating God’s despatch of Moses and Aaron and the turning of waters into blood.

Jessica Gillingwater tellingly conjured plagues of frogs and pestilent cattle, the glossy fullness of her mezzo-soprano voice sitting effectively against the spiky string rhythms. The two basses, Jamie W. Hall and Andrew Rupp sang expressively and with focus, the light buoyancy of violins and oboe a welcome complement to their celebratory pomp. Soprano Emma Tring sounded rather shrill and under the note at the close, as she encouraged one and all to ‘Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously’.

This was a performance which grew in persuasiveness and interest. If it failed to convince entirely then that probably says more about the oratorio-in-perpetual-progress than about this specific presentation itself.

The performance will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 16 th May at 7.30pm, and available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days after the broadcast.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Israel in Egypt (1756 version)

Gergely Madaras (conductor), Emma Tring (soprano), Nancy Cole (alto), Jessica Gillingwater (alto), Tom Raskin (tenor), Jamie W. Hall (bass), Andrew Rupp (bass), BBC Singers, Academy of Ancient Music.

Milton Court Concert Hall, London; Friday 10th May 2019.

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