Israel in Egypt (Handel)
St George’s Cathedral Chorus and Sinfonia
St George’s Cathedral
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Unlike the bad old days when choirs singing Handel’s oratorios would routinely outnumber the accompanying orchestra five or so to one, we heard Israel in Egypt at St George’s Cathedral where, give or take a few, there were about as many in the choir as the orchestra. These would have been roughly the numbers Handel had in mind when writing the oratorio – and, some reservations aside, this worked well. But in so large a space as the cathedral, one sensed a need at choral climaxes for some modest beefing up of choral numbers to more adequately ride the crest of the accompanying orchestral wave which, in turn, could have done with some strengthening of the strings to underscore the grandeur of the oratorio’s more spectacular choruses.
In the minds of many oratorio fanciers, Israel in Egypt, qualitatively, ranks higher even than Messiah which has been Handel’s top box office draw for centuries. I dare say that because Handel’s take on the Old Testament Exodus story concentrates primarily on choral items, it is less attractive to concertgoers for whom Handel’s solo arias are the chief appeal. The loss is their’s because Israel in Egypt brims with some of the Master’s happiest inspirations.
“He gave them hailstones”, for instance, is magnificent music – and, under Simon Lawford’s direction, the trumpeters and choristers responded to it with commendable attack and follow-through. And Tim White’s thudding kettle drums added significantly to the choir’s response as they sang “But the waters overwhelmed their enemies”. Earlier, in “But as for His people”, vocal lines coalesced and separated in a consistently musical way. But in some of the less-convincing choral contributions, some weaknesses of the inner voices tended to blur details.
It was a particularly good night for the brass with trumpets adding a memorable dimension to “The Lord shall reign”. But if strings sounded dismayingly scrappy in the introduction to “The Lord is my strength”, they were much on their mettle in rapid passagework simulating the buzz and whine of flies, lice and locusts in the chorus about those plagues visited upon the Egyptians. I admired, too, the sturdiness of the striding accompaniment to “The Lord shall reign forever”.
Vocal soloists were drawn from the choir – and of these, Jonathan Daventry shone with an echt alto quality and clear diction that gave point and meaning to his account of “Their land brought forth frogs”. There was also an impressive offering by bass Andrew Moran. And if there was some forcing of the tone in Stuart Haycock’s aria “The enemy said”, his recitatives were uniformly polished.
Hopefully, this imaginative alternative to yet another airing of Handel’s Messiah will set a trend towards more enterprising oratorio choices for Perth. What about Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ which hasn’t been mounted here in years – or Handel’s Samson?
© December 2003