Sunday 12 May 2019

Far more than choral virtuosity: Handel's Israel in Egypt from the BBC Singers & Academy of Ancient Music

Handel Israel in Egypt (1756); BBC Singers, Academy of Ancient Music, Gergely Madaras; Milton Court Concert Hall
BBC Singers, Academy of Ancient Music, Gergely Madaras; Milton Court Concert Hall (Photo BBC Singers)
Handel Israel in Egypt (1756); BBC Singers, Academy of Ancient Music, Gergely Madaras; Milton Court Concert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Though we only got the torso of the work, this was a tour de force from both singers and instrumentalists, technique, drama and engagements

The BBC Singers has such a reputation in 20th century and contemporary music that it can be something of a surprise to find them in more standard repertoire, though in fact the ensemble's concert season takes in music from 17th century to the present day.

For the BBC Singers concert at Milton Court Concert Hall on Friday 10 May 2019, the choir was joined by the Academy of Ancient Music and conductor Gergely Madaras for a performance of one of the great 18th century choral showpieces, Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt. Whilst the work is all about the chorus, there are solos and at this performance the soloists all came from the choir, soprano Emma Tring, altos Nancy Cole and Jessica Gillingwater, tenor Tom Raskin, and basses Jamie W. Hall and Andrew Rupp.

Israel in Egypt has a rather complex history, and the work has never quite found a finished form. Handel's first version used a re-write of the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline as part one, this failed to gain popularity and he quickly dropped the funeral anthem and added additional solos to the work, later revivals created a variety of different first parts for the piece, with the result that the work survives in the repertoire in a version which Handel never performed, parts two and three of the original three-part work forming a new two-part work. By way of preparation, Gergely Madaras chose the sinfonia to the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, a logical choice. And once the oratorio proper started there was much to enjoy indeed.
In part one, tenor Tom Raskin provided dramatic recitatives, and alto Jessica Gillingwater showed great relish in the aria about frogs, but the main narrative thrust was on the chorus and the orchestra. At first I did wonder whether the BBC Singers might be a little too cool, albeit technically superb. Handel's sequence of narrative choruses is highly challenging and whilst amateur choirs might sometimes struggle, you find the singers tend to attack the highly coloured words with relish. There was perhaps not quite as much relish in the BBC Singers delivery, yet gradually their approach paid dividends. We came to enjoy the technical security of the music with some very fine passagework indeed such is in the buzzing of the flies, the beautifully even choral control in choruses like ''He sent thick darkness', whilst grand moments like 'He gave them hailstones' were thrilling. There were beautifully crafted moments with singers and orchestra giving a fine sense of phrasing to Handel's choruses inspired by earlier music.

With such superb choral technique and an experienced orchestra like the Academy of Ancient Music, Madaras was able to bring out the contrasts implicit in the music, fugal sections with beautiful line counterpointed with highly pointed melodies, thrillingly strong declamation against delicate fast passages. The sense of narrative built, and you came to enjoy the sense of intelligent drama that Madaras and his forces brought to the work. The delightful depictions of the plagues are not just in the choir, and the players of the Academy of Ancient Music gave us some highly coloured moments too.

For the second half we move to the celebrations after the event, here narrative is replaced by grandeur, awe and celebration. Basses Jamie W. Hall and Andrew Rupp were nicely theatrical in their delivery of the duet 'The Lord is a man of war'. The choral contributions varied from the vivid passagework of the first chorus with its depiction of the horse and rider thrown into the sea, the rich textures of 'He is my God' and the hushed awe of 'The depths have cover'd them'. The large scale chorus 'Thy right hand' was pure brilliance, and we came to appreciate the range of colours and textures that the singers brought to the music. The final sequence of recitative, soprano solo and choruses was vividly dramatic and full of thrilling contrasts.

This was quite a compact evening, and with orchestra and chorus on such great form I rather regretted that the opportunity was not taken to give us the full original version of Israel in Egypt but even this torso had much to enjoy, going far beyond thrilling choral virtuosity for its own sake.

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