Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Back to the original: Handel's three-part version of Israel in Egypt at the BBC Proms

William Christie (photo Dennis Rouvre)
William Christie (photo Dennis Rouvre)
Handel Israel in Egypt (1739 version); Choir of the Enlightenment, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, William Christie; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 1 2017
Star rating: 5.0

Superb choral singing in a virtuoso account of the original version of Handel's popular oratorio.

For all its extreme popularity with choirs, Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt is a somewhat problematic work; the scarcity of solos makes hiring professional soloists an extravagant expense, and the standard version of the work starts oddly with a tenor recitative. If we return to the work's history then these issues are put into context, and this is what William Christie did for the performance of Handel's Israel in Egypt at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 1 August 2017. Christie conducted the Choir of the Enlightenment and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Handel's original 1739 version of the oratorio, which includes the rarely performed Part One which is essentially The Ways of Zion do mourn, his Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, with new words, and the soloists were all drawn from the ranks of the professional singers in the choir (in Handel's day the soloists also sang in the choral movements), here they were Zoe Brookshaw, Rowan Pierce, Christopher Lowrey, Jeremy Budd, Dingle Yandell and Callum Thorpe.

Whilst today we think of the chorus as the mainstay of Handelian oratorio, in Handel's day this was not so and his audience rather expected a dramatic work with lots of solos. This meant that both Israel in Egypt and Messiah failed to please when first presented to the London audience. Messiah eventually did take, but Handel adapted Israel in Egypt very early on by dropping the original part one and adding lots of extra solos. The original Part One (now 'The Lamentation of the Israelites for the death of Joseph' ) does indeed make a tricky opening to the work as the piece has such a sober intensity about it, and it is a profoundly satisfying work in its own right.


William Christie used rather larger forces than usual, reflecting the wide open spaces of the Royal Albert Hall, with a choir of 49 and an orchestra of 42.

Part One started with a drum beat before the sober symphony. The whole was a remarkable piece of concentrated and intense choral drama. The singers giving us fine sculptural phrases and lovely control. There were moments of drama, and some of quietly hushed intensity, but the overall feel was of the sober sweep of the piece. This was supported by the fine singing, and characterful support from the orchestra. In whatever guise, this is remarkable music and Christie and his performers ensured that it made the maximum effect.

As Handel probably intended, Part Two was a complete change in mood. The choral singers clearly enjoyed the various challenges which Handel gave them in depicting the different plagues. Choruses like 'He spake the word' were not only full of vivid contrasts, but the singers really relished the words like 'flies' and 'lice', whilst 'He sent thick darkness' as very atmospheric, all ending with a wonderfully expansive 'And Israel saw'. Whilst Christie's speed were not excessive, some passages went a quite a pace so that we had some vividly virtuoso choral singing. The solos were similarly characterful with Christopher Lowrey singing with lovely tone, and again relishing the 'frogs', 'blotches and blains'. We also had one of Handel's extra solos which he introduced, 'Through the and so lovely blooming', which was originally from Athalia. This was rather pastoral and though finely sung by Rowan Pierce, with a lovely clear focussed soprano, it did rather sit oddly in amongst the plagues.

In Part Three, grandeur and rich choral sound gradually gave way to some vivid word-painting, as the chorus described the vicissitudes of Pharaoh's army, with choruses like 'Thy right hand' full of colour. The final chorus was taken at quite a pace, so that the Lord's triumph was not only glorious but full of virtuoso choral singing. The solos and duets were similarly characterful, with Zoe Brookshaw and Rowan Pierce providing to lovely clear firm, yet contrasting voices, in 'The Lord is my strength', whilst Dingle Yandell and Callum Thorpe were similarly terrific in 'The Lord is a man of war' giving us two admirably firm and lithe voices. Jeremy Budd made the various recitatives count, whilst giving us a vivid account of 'The enemy said, I will pursue', taken at quite a tempo. Budd and Lowery provided to lovely intertwining voices in the duet 'Thou in thy mercy'.

I am not sure that the original version of Israel in Egypt will ever become common currency. Though tastes have changed since Handel's day, the large scale, sober lamentation of Part One seems to unbalance the whole. But this was a wonderful opportunity to hear it, with some of the finest choral singing I have heard in a long time, supported by strongly characterful playing, full of crisp detail and elegant line.

The concert is available for 30 days on the BBC iPlayer.

This review also appears in OperaToday.com.

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1 comment:

  1. Could not agree more. A stunning performance by choir and orchestra. As an amateur bass in an amateur choir, I rely heavily on assistance/guidance of double basses who often play the same line. I would like to highly commend the 3 double bass players last night especially their finger work during the more frenetic passages. I would also commend everybody's concentration and stamina. It is a very long piece.

    Edward King

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