Wednesday 18 May 2016

God spake the word - Handel's Israel in Egypt at Westminster Abbey

James O'Donnell, Choir of Westminster Abbey, St James' Baroque
James O'Donnell, Choir of Westminster Abbey, St James' Baroque
Handel Israel in Egypt; The choir of Westminster Abbey, St James' Baroque, James O'Donnell; London Festival of Baroque Music at Westminster Abbey
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 13 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Handel's most choral oratorio in the grand spaces of Westminster Abbey

A concert at Westminster Abbey has been something of a regular event at the London Festival of Baroque Music and this year was no exception. On Tuesday 17 May 2016 we heard the choir of Westminster Abbey and St James' Baroque conducted by James O'Donnell performing Handel's Israel in Egypt. This year's festival has as its theme The Word: Voice and verse in harmony and the concert was the second under the title God spake the word; the first being Saturday's performance of Messiah from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort (see the review on this blog).

Whereas Messiah had been given in a very specific historical version (a reconstruction of the original 1741 Dublin version), Israel in Egypt was performed in the modern two-part version. When Handel premiered the oratorio in 1739 it was his first oratorio to set a text taken directly from the Bible, and there were three parts to it, with part one being a re-working of Handel's 1737 funeral ode for Queen Caroline, The Ways of Zion do Mourn. In this form the oratorio did not really work, with three rather static choral parts even though the funeral ode is magnificent music. In later revivals of the work Handel experimented with other ideas for part one. None of these took, and by the 19th century the work had settled into a form which would have been unfamiliar to Handel, just two parts (his original parts two and three) without an overture. Sensibly at Westminster Abbey, James O'Donnell chose to pre-fix the piece with the original overture (from The Ways of Zion do Mourn) which at least gives the piece a coherent opening. (If you are interested in hearing the full three-part version, then try Andrew Parrott's recording with the Taverner Choir and Players).

Despite the Biblical nature of the text, Israel in Egpyt was written as a theatre piece though Handel's audiences took some time to get used to the idea. All of Handel's own performances of the work were given in theatres, and 18th century performances in large ecclesiastical spaces would almost certainly have used a rather larger performing group than we heard at Westminster Abbey (34 singers, 30 instrumentalists). But we seem to have become squeamish about large-scale Handel performance even though there is good 18th century evidence for it. It would have been interesting to hear the work performed by three times this number of singers with a balancing number of instruments and with the Westminster Abbey organ playing continuo.

But James O'Donnell, as organist and master of the choristers at Westminster Abbey, is experienced at performing in the space and made a judicious choice of speeds so that the music really told in the large acoustic.
Granted we lost some detail in the busier passages, but the singers in the choir worked really hard and from my seat in the fourth row I was able to hear far more detail of music and text than I had ever expected. This really was a performance which was about the projection of the word, something which is important in oratorio.

The solos were taken by members of the choir, a sensible procedure as in its truncated form the number of solo moments do not really warrant the employment of separate soloists (as far as we know, Handel's soloists would have sung with the choir as well).

The overture was sombrely elegant and set the mood nicely. In part one the choir really relished their role in the story telling and made a lot of Handel's word painting, the wonderful contrasts in He spake the word with the flies really buzzing, the excitement of the hailstones and the sense of stasis in He sent a thick darkness. The singers accents really cut through the texture in He smote all the first-born and by contrast the pastoral But as for His people worked well too. We had further textural contrasts in the rebuke of the Red sea with some vivid detail in the waters overwhelming the enemies. One of the features of the work is Handel's inclusion of a lot of well-made polyphonic choruses (often based on music by others) and here the choir's experience in Renaissance polyphony meant that the music was beautifully shaped.

The soloists in part one had a great time too, with David Martin bringing a shapely sense of line to And the children of Israel sighed, and clearly relishing the words in Their land brought forth frogs. Tenor William Balkwill sang the recitative at a steady tempo, ensuring an admirable delivery of the text.

Part two is perhaps less satisfactory, and the sequence of smaller choruses and arias does not quite add up to a greater whole the way it does in similar works by Handel, but there were many incidental felicities. The choir were superb in their delivery of the various choral recitatives, projecting text with clarity. There were grand moments too like the opening chorus of part two Moses and the Children (with some fine passagework with a remarkable amount of detail audible), and the long sequence of closing choruses making real use of the acoustics in the church, and choruses like Thy right hand, O Lord were simply a glorious noise. There was word painting too, The people shall hear was particularly vivid.

Trebles George Vyvyan and Sebastian Braw-Smith gave a strong and confident account of the duet The Lord is my strength, whilst basses Jonathan Brown and Julian Empett were strong, up-front and not a little stylish in their duet The Lord is a man of war. Tenor Julian Stocker managed to combined admirable diction with fine passagework in The enemy said whilst treble Daniel Livermore brought a gentle tone and sense of style to Thou didst blow. Livermore reappeared as the treble soloist in the final chorus, where his strong delivery combined with clear words. Alto Simon Ponsford and tenor Mark Dobell made a nicely balanced combination, with a fine contrast in timbres, in the duet Thou in thy mercy.

It is worth remembering that the choir of Westminster Abbey (with its 19 trebles) combined this choral marathon (there are 20 choruses in the work) with their regular schedule of services, and their contribution was superb with all ages giving a strongly musical performance combined with a real determination to get as much of the text over as possible. They were well supported by St James' Baroque which gave fine instrumental partnership to the music. The balance was good, with the chorus not too prominent as can happen in some modern performances. My only instrumental cavil was that the organ seem just to underpowered for the building and the forces used, and that to compensate the harpsichord seemed to play rather too often in the choruses.

This was a great evening, with James O'Donnell providing a masterclass in how to make this music work in a large acoustic, whilst bringing a nice sense of style overall.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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