Friday, 5 June 2015

Handel's Israel in Egypt from La Nuova Music at the Spitalfields Festival

La Nuova Musica - photo Ben Ealovega
La Nuova Musica - photo Ben Ealovega
Handel Israel in Egypt; La Nuova Musica, David Bates; Spitalfields Music Summer Festival at Christ Church, Spitalfields
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 4, 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Vivid colours in this small scale account of Handel's great choral work

Spitalfields Music's Summer Festival is again in full swing, and one of their artists in residence this year is La Nuova Musica, artistic director David Bates. On Thursday 4 June 2015 at Christ Church, Spitalfields the group performed Handel's dramatic re-telling of the story of Moses and the Exodus, his oratorio Israel in Egypt, at Christ Church, Spitalfields. Unusually for Handel the work has a large number of choruses and for the depiction of the plagues the chorus becomes the narrator. In fact, in its original version the oratorio was even more chorally based, as Handel started it with an adaptation of his Funeral Ode for Queen Caroline. This was not popular, and he soon removed this, adding a selection of Italian arias instead. David Bates and La Nuova Musica followed the modern usage, performing the shorter later version, prefixing it with the overture to the Occasional Oratorio. David Bates also took advantage of having a chorus of young professional singers and the soloists were all members of the choir.

David Bates - photo Ben Ealovega
David Bates
photo Ben Ealovega
When writing the work, Handel was clearly interested in exploring what was possible by using the chorus. Not only are there some 20 choruses but many of them are for double chorus. Using just 20 singers, all young adults with mainly men on the alto line, and an orchestra of 26, David Bates took advantage of these smaller forces to get a high degree of control in the music. This ensured that all of Handel's brilliant depictions of the plagues were vividly done.

There was a sense that each vocal or choral timbre, colour or texture was taken to its ultimate. Accented notes were crisply firm, legatos were very smooth, attack was vividly brilliant and the quietly sustained choral passages were very intense. David Bates brought out the contrasts in Handel's writing, so that in many of the choruses melody and counter-melody were strongly diffentiated. Handel used his full armoury of tricks in this work, and David Bates eye for detail ensured that none of them were missed, and all registered brilliantly. This was a highly vivid performance, and there was something of a feel of a child let loose in a box of sweets. Speeds were generally fast, but to say that the performers coped is an understatement, and David Bates wisely allowed some moments to relax. Some moments seemed a little over done, so the timpani and drums were allowed their head a little too much. But oboist Leo Duarte gave a spectacular solo in the overture playing with mellow singing tone, and on numerous occasions he and Gail Hennessy were brought to the fore. it was clear David Bates and all his performers drew intense satisfaction and enjoyment from this attention to detail. The result was very involving, with a superb sense of elan.


A lot of work had evidently been done on the words, always an important factor in Handel's English oratorios. It is important that we not just hear them, but that they are delivered expressively; after all, the oratorio is intended to tell a moral story, illuminated by music. The soloists were all excellent at bringing the words over, and tenors Thomas Herford and William Balkwill relished every single verbal detail of their recitatives. Moments like the chorus 'And there came all manner of flies' brought out an under-graduate sense of delight in the text and the way that Handel set it, though occasionally the acoustics of Christ Church rather defeated them.

The big moments were not neglected, and the choir made a good strong sound, which was admirably firm with a lovely amplitude to the tone despite the small number of voices on each part. In fact, there were some choruses where I felt that the band could have done with an extra desk in each of the string parts so that their performance had the same amplitude. During the second part, there were moments when the performance's vivid sense of control seemed to occasionally falter and untidiness crept in, as if the rehearsals had not quite had time to ensure that every single detail was attended to. But the performers recovered and concluded with great elan.

Tenor Thomas Herford opened with a pair of vivid recitatives, and alto Simon Ponsford took clear delight in 'Their land brought forth frogs' nicely supported by some vivid violins. Sopranos Katy Hill and Zoe Brown with neatly contrasted but nicely balanced with a beautiful unanimity of phrasing in the duet The Lord is my strength, whilst basses James Arthur and Callum Thorpe made  a virile pairing in The Lord is a man of war with some good passage-work and nicely free top registers. Thomas Herford returned for the aria The enemy said, which was taken at quite a lick, but sung with vivid words, fine passage-work and good strong tone though he seemed a little pressed at the top occasionally. Soprano Alice Gribbon was fluid and flowing, with fine warm tone in Though didst blow. Alto Rory McCleery and tenor William Balkwill were a nice contrast of timbre but sympathetic blend of style in the duet thou in Thy mercy. Soprano Esther Brazil sang Thou shalt bring them in with beautifully effortless, creamy tone and lovely shapely phrasing. William Balkwill returned at the end for the vivid concluding recitatives and the soprano solo in the in the final chorus was taken by all the sopranos. In all the solos and duets, the cadenzas were a little too elaborate and modern in style for my taste, but were certainly stylishly done. Taking the soloists from the choir gave a wide range of vocal individuality, though not every voice was quite of the first rank all were profoundly stylish, with great technical proficiency (David Bates speeds were often very fast) and good attention to words. 

This could have been one of those performances which gets so hung up on details that the whole fails to add up to something satisfying, but not here. For all his attention to detail and control of his performers via his distinctively idiomatic conducting style, David Bates clearly had a sense of the work's overall structure. The resulting performance had a satisfying sweep and impetus to it, creating a highly satisfying work.

The Spitalfields Music's Summer Festival runs until June 16, and there are a wide range of events to choose from with La Nuova Musica returning for a number of other events.

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