Saturday 27 September 2008

Review of Handel's Israel in Egypt

As performed today, Handel's Israel in Egypt is pretty much a tour-de-force for the chorus. In its original version it was even more so, stretching to some 40 choruses. Handel seems to have written it piecemeal. He started with the last movement, the song of Moses, then at some point decided to start with piece with a similar balancing movement by re-cycling the Funeral Ode for Queen Caroline. In between he wrote a description of the plagues of Egypt and the escape of the Israelites. Despite the glories of the choral writing, the work did not go down well with Handel's audience. Even when he created a new version which intermixed lots of solos, the punters still stayed away.

This means that the version of the oratorio which has come down to us is curious. The first movement, the re-worked funeral ode, has failed to stick and as published it now starts with a tenor recitative. There would be some benefit in attempting to re-construct Handel's original 3 act version, but this would give us a very substantial work, one that would be very taxing chorally. Instead, for their performance at Cadogan Hall on Wednesday, the London Chorus under Ronald Corp chose to start the concert with Handel's organ concerto The Cuckoo and the Nightingale. This was a curious choice as the organ concerto entirely fails to set the sombre tone needed for the oratorio. Added to this, the solo organ part was played on a small portative organ which seemed entirely too underpowered for its solo role, especially when accompanied by modern instruments.

The question of balance had worried me with regard to the choral movements, being as the London Chorus numbered some 80 singers and the orchestra were only 23. But as it turned out Ronald Corp managed to keep balance admirably between the two groups. My main cause for complaint in this area was that the chamber organ was too small as a continuo instrument with such a large chorus and the choral movements sounded entirely continuo free.

Ronald Corp favoured quite steady speeds, perhaps to help his chorus. The singers responded admirably to Handel's challenging vocal writing. They displayed all the virtues (and faults) of the traditional amateur choral society. On the plus side they showed vigorous attack, a lively narrative sense, superb commitment, good diction and attentiveness to their conductor. On the negative side, the tricky passage-work was sometimes smudgy, some difficult entries were faulty, the soprano led sound tended to get hard under stress and the choir seemed rather taxed by the difficult double chorus movements.

That Handel would have intended his soloists to sing with the choir is probably indicated by his vocal dispositions. The work requires 6 soloists (2 sopranos, 1 alto, 1 tenor, 2 basses) and few of the singers get more than a single movement in the spot light. Here the London Chorus chose a group of talented young singers who brought great lustre to the proceedings.

Tenor Ben Johnson was a committed narrator and sang his solo aria deftly and dramatically. Alto Magid El-Bushra had rather a subdued stage presence but he has a lovely warm counter-tenor voice which he used musically. Sopranos Mary Bevan and Sophie Bevan delivered their duet ravishingly, I thought it was the best item in the performance until I heard Ben Davies and Sam Evans sing the bass duet, The Lord is a man of war. Rarely have I heard such beautifully shaped and balanced bass singing, certainly no bluster here.

The choir were well supported by the New London Orchestra, though they rarely got moments to shine, Handel keeps them pretty much in a supporting role.

This was by no means a perfect performance but overall the impression was one of supreme committment, vivid story telling and great energy.

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