During the late 1730’s, Handel completed no fewer than nineteen oratorios, of which Israel in Egypt, a lavish and dramatic choral masterpiece of musical picture painting, is the fifth. Completed within just twenty-seven days during 1738, this oratorio was premiered on April 4, 1739, to a somewhat unappreciative audience at the King’s Theatre Haymarket. Despite its initial cool response, Israel in Egypt, like much of Handel’s other output, has stood the test of time by remaining as iconic musical works in ceremonial and concert repertoire.
Handel’s collaborator Charles Jennens is believed to have written the libretto for Israel of Egypt, which relates the Old Testament story of Moses leading the Jews out of slavery in Egypt. An earlier version of the oratorio existed in three parts; however, this was later revised to form the two-part version performed this evening.
Part One features texts drawn from psalms 78, 105 and 106, along with several passages from the Book of Exodus. Part Two, ‘Moses’ Song’, does not continue the story to create a sequel as such, but rather forms an exuberant song rejoicing in the power and glory of the Lord through referencing key points in the Exodus story; in particular the parting of the Red Sea.
Joining forces to perform this evening’s programme were The Whitehall Choir, accompanied once again by The London Baroque Sinfonia with James Longford on keyboard continuo, under the expert direction of conductor Paul Spicer. Previous collaborations with the LBS have included Bach’s B minor Mass, Monteverdi’s Vespers on 1610, and recently Handel’s Judas Maccabœus. An authority on choral conducting, Spicer has now served as the choir’s musical director for twelve seasons, alongside dividing his time between appointments with the Birmingham Bach choir, the chamber choirs of Birmingham Conservatoire, as well as lecturing posts there and at Oxford University. A fruitful collaboration that has led to the release of two CD recordings (in 2007 and 2009), evidence of Spicer’s professional influence and the ensembles’ skilful dedication was abundantly apparent in their creative, and powerfully dramatic realisation of Handel’s Israel in Egypt.
Unique amongst Handel’s oratorios, there is no overture or prelude to Israel in Egypt. Part One instead opens with a short recitative, sung this evening by tenor Iain Milne, to introduce the story:
‘Now there arose a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph…’
This is followed by an alto solo (Angharad Lyddon) with chorus, and another tenor recitative, to present a contextual summary of events (the oppressed Israelites have cried to God for help and He has sent Moses as His servant to their aid), before we are plunged straight into vividly unsettling recounts of the seven plagues upon Egypt.
Here the LBS and WC conveyed Handel’s genius word painting with sensational effect in nuanced detail. As the accompaniment hopped and buzzed frenetically under the voices of Lyddon and the chorus, it was as if the frogs, flies and locusts came to life in the hall of St John’s. Yet, in the aftermath of this recount of wrath, both ensembles assumed an altogether different composure to relate in lilting and tender phrases, sweetly passed between the flutes, violins and choir, how:
‘…for His people, He led them forth like sheep.’
Following this tranquil lull, the audience was transported to shores of the Red Sea to accompany the Israelites in bearing witness to the awesome vista of the Lord’s miracle. Swathes of sound rose, rolled and thundered from the stage as the parted waters flooded back together, engulfing the Pharaoh and his soldiers. A simply stated affirmation of faith brought Part One to a close:
‘And believed the Lord and His servant Moses.’
In Part Two, three duets (sopranos 1 & 2, basses 1& 2, and alto with tenor), three solos (tenor, soprano and alto), and two tenor recitatives interweave the fifteen choruses, enhancing the characterisation of Moses’ jubilant song of praise.
The imagery from the end of Part One, of the Red Sea swallowing up the Israelites’ enemies, continues as a prominent theme in the libretto to emphasise the power and might of the Lord. It is recollected from the outset of Part Two in a monumental choral fugue: ‘I will sing unto the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.’
Various statement recounting these events arise repeatedly until the very final lines of the oratorio, when Prophetess Miriam’s answer to the women of Israel makes a direct quotation to that first recollection:
‘Sing ye to the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.’
This refrain, sung by solo soprano Nathalie Chalkley, was then taken up and magnified by the choir, accompanied by layer upon layer of instrumental harmonies, brass fanfare and timpani, building up to a euphorically glorious and triumphant close. In conjunction with the two anthem-like choral outbursts that precede the ending, the effect was not dissimilar in grandeur and impact to other famous works by Handel, such as Zadok the Priest and Messiah.
In Part Two the choir again demonstrated their proficiency in realising Handel’s word painting, for instance by evoking the impression of heaviness through the elongated vowel sounds in:
‘The depths have covered them: they sank into the bottom as a stone.’
Amongst the soloists, all of whom are currently studying at the Royal Academy of Music, the tenor Milne’s performance stood out for its convincing characterisation of the text, whilst the alto Lyddon’s uniquely rounded voice attributed an emotive poignancy to her lines. The soprano solos and duets, whilst beautiful sung by Chalkley and Ruth Jenkins, left something to be desired in terms of dramatic conviction. The duet for basses ‘The Lord is a man of war,’ was impressively sung with apt gusto and fervour by an equally matched Johnny Herford and Gareth John.
In sharp contrast to that premiere some 273 years ago, this evening’s performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt, received a well-deserved and resounding applause from a delighted audience in St John’s, Smith Square.