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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Israel in Egypt - Oratorio in three parts (1739)
Laura Albino, Eve Rachel McLeod, Jennie Such (sopranos); Jennifer Enns Modolo (alto); Peter Mahon (counter-tenor); Nils Brown, Bud Roach (tenors); Jason Nedecky, Sean Watson (basses)
Aradia Ensemble/Kevin Mallon
rec. St Anne’s Anglican Church, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 3-10 January 2008
NAXOS 8.570966-67 [70:35 + 48:44]
Experience Classicsonline

Israel in Egypt is unlike any of the composer’s other oratorios. It is focused almost exclusively on the chorus which is for much of the time divided to form a double chorus. There are solos, duets and quartets but they are by no means the most significant part of the work as is the case with Handel’s other oratorios. It is arranged so that all the action happens in the central part, with the longer outer parts essentially a lamentation and a triumph respectively. That at least is what happens here. The First Part – “The Lamentation of the Israelites for the death of Joseph” – was in effect a reuse by Handel of his earlier Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline. Unfortunately many modern editions do not include it as part of Israel in Egypt so that until relatively recently the work was usually performed in a truncated form consisting merely of Parts Two and Three. This did have the advantage of leaving the choir much fresher for the final choruses but resulted in a very unsatisfactory lopsided design. It is therefore a pleasure that this recording, like most of its more recent predecessors, includes the entire work.
Whatever the special pleasures given in the past by performances by the monster choirs of the Crystal Palace or even by a standard amateur choral society of half a century ago, so much more can be heard of the detail of the work with a small choir. The Aradia is in that category and listening to these discs one is constantly amazed at the varied invention that Handel provides in movement after movement. Whatever detailed shortcomings there may be here, what matters is that the performance as a whole sounds live - although it is not - and has a real feeling for the vigour of Handel’s inspiration - even where it is closely based on earlier works by others. There may be some minor faults of balance or intonation but these are very occasional and neither is of any great consequence compared with the sheer pleasure in the music that the performers manage to convey. This is hardly surprising when you consider the opportunities given to them, in particular by the astonishing chain of plague choruses in Part Two, depicted in contrasting and vivid pictures. At one time these were commonly extracted to be performed as part of mixed concerts. Listening to this performance you wonder why this is not done now. But no matter, any time you have half an hour to spare you can listen to them here and marvel yet again at Handel’s genius. I can imagine no better way to celebrate this year’s anniversary.
The soloists are all adequate, and some, in particular Jennifer Enns Modolo who sings “Their land brought forth frogs”, are much more than that. There used to be a kind of bizarre pleasure in hearing the duet “The Lord is a man of war” sung by the entire bass section – you can hear it on Dutton’s reissue of Sargent’s version with the Huddersfield Choral Society – but there is much more pleasure to be had from two very competent basses such as we have here. It has to be said that in some of the choruses the basses are somewhat weak compared to the upper voices, and this is unsurprising when it appears that there were a total of nine sopranos but only five basses. In the double choruses therefore there must have been only two singers to the bass part on one side. Under these circumstances they have to be said to have done well, but perhaps another bass on each side would have helped in the overall balance.
The recording is close but not objectionably so, and the historical notes and synopsis by William Yeoman are excellent, although once again Naxos have spoilt the package by omitting the text even if this is available on their website. This is, however, of little importance when compared with the very strong merits of this set both as music and as performance. This is a real winner starting this anniversary year in fine style.
John Sheppard


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