Israel in Egypt (1739 version).
Susan Gritton (soprano), Libby
Crabtree (soprano), Michael Chance (alto), Robert Ogden (alto), Ian Bostridge
(tenor), Stephen Varcoe (bass), Henry Herford (bass) Choir of King's College,
Cambridge, The Brandenburg Consort, Stephen Cleobury.
DECCA 452 295
- 2 (DDD) (125.50) (2
Handel had a passion for writing English oratorio. Esther appeared
in 1738. Deborah and Athalia appeared in 1719 and, shortly
before Israel in Egypt was completed, came Saul and the
incomparable Messiah. Handel was turning away from opera to oratorio.
Israel in Egypt was composed quickly and is in three parts namely
The Lamentations of the Israelites for the death of Joseph, or its
shortened title The Ways of Zion do mourn... the second part portrays
The Exodus and the third part is Moses's Song.
The opening section, the mourning for Joseph was linked to the current
lamentation at the death of Queen Caroline. She had been a loyal supporter
to Handel since his days in Hanover and this German connection may explain
the use of Lutherian-style music.
Israel in Egypt was never a real success .There are many reasons for this.
Its inspiration is not at the same high level as Messiah. There is
a lot of 'borrowing' from other works that he had previously written ; it
shows the influence of Stradella and what appears to be plagiarism from Stradella
as well ; there are also ' borrowings' from
a Ricercare by Gabrieli and from a keyboard canzone by Kerll. One wonders
There are one or two major 'shortcomings' in this recording
. The Choir of King's College is all male
and this means that the mature sounds of the female voices are non-existant
in the chorus. The choice of two male altos among the soloists is also a
pity. Contraltoes are far better. They have more colour and richness in their
That the Choir of Kings is all male is a traditional and someone from the
College told me that it was a pompous tradition. It could also be said to
be sexist although that is a word I dislike. Isn't it extraordinary that
the word sexist is only used to describe a man criticing a woman
, never the other way round?.
But to the music.
The first half of the oratorio is melancholy. The opening prelude is dark,
deep, woody and very grim. The opening chorus The sons of Israel do mourn
is very telling in parts but how much better it would be with fermale
voices. Boys voices pierce at the top of their registers and have no real
sostenuto and certainly do that have the mercurial sound of womens
voices. Boy trebles, like male altos, are comparatively colourless. The vocal
attack on the words How are the mighty faJl'n is somewhat crude and
exaggerated and, as it is constantly repeated, it sounds both daft and banal.
The chorus He put on righteousness shows up the creaminess of male
altos and boy trebles. And the performance sounds too clinical white coats
The quartet When the ear heard intoduces a female soloist in Susan
Gritton and how welcome this is in this boring male preserve. Michael Chance,
the first male alto soloist is very good, however. Ian Bostridge sounds awfully
lost but Stephen Varcoe is his usual reliable self. It is a lovely piece,
beautifully paced. The next chorus repeats the How are the mighty fallen
which is a bad and inappropriate use of Biblical text. The oratorio refers
to the death of Joseph, a great man..... the text used in 2 Samuel refers
to the death of Saul and Jonathan, the former being the enemy of the God-chosen
The unsatistfactoriness of boy sopranos is even more obvious in the next
chorus where they have exposed vocal lines and are very uncomfortable. So
was I. Real sopranos are far, far better. The boys are shrill at times and
their tenutos are very doubtful. A later chorus The people will
tell of their wisdom is very well realised as is the following quartet
They shall receive a glorious Kingdom. There is real beauty here.
The first part of the oratorio ends with the Lutheran-style chorus The
merciful goodness of the Lord which returns to the darkness of the opening
prelude... but there is a hint at optimism .
You cannot mourn a great man for ever but, rather, rejoice, in his
Part Two opens with the first recitative of the work and the second alto
soloist, Robert Ogden, joins the chorus in And the children of Israel
sighed. But the contrast between the sighing slaves and the oppressive
bondage is too sudden. But there is some good singing here. The second tenor
recitative tells of the turning of the waters into blood. Bostridge is weird
in diction. Handel has not captured the horror of this plague and the arrival
of the frogs has no alarm in it either. It sounds like playtime at TOYS R'US.
But Michael Chance's singing is a real asset!
Enter the flies where the violins do try to buzz but the orchestral detail
should have been brought out. So much is lost by the strings "playing in
a matchbox" and if modern instruments were used it would be better and more
dramatic. It is a good chorus, though. The cadential sequences are majestic.
The hailstones mingled with fire works very well. Very impressive Handel
but, again a greater orchestral attack was necessary. My old LPs conducted
by Sergent, and with a mixed chorus, is vastly better. The next chorus tells
of the plague of thick darkness in which the orchestral opening was very
well done. The spaciousness of the choral singing was very, very moving and
the tempo brilliantly judged. There is some drama in the smiting of the firstborn
of Egypt but, again, a mixed choir and a greater attack, which male high
voices cannot achieve very well, would have been better. The strings needed
to be rougher, more robust, more angry...
A lighter texture is present in the next chorus telling how God leads His
people. It is one of those choruses that always reminds you of Christmas.
Something magical and almost scintillating..., but with that wonderfully
'warm' quality that Handel choruses sometimes have..
If ever there was a case when Handel should have written a really joyous
chorus it is now in the chorus Egypt was glad when they departed. But
the real feelings of the Egyptians are not realised here. Had the performance
been quicker we may have approached the Egyptians tremendous sense of joy
and relief. Part Two ends with four more choruses where there are some very
bad high treble notes particularly while the Red Sea was drying up. The perishing
of the Egyptians in the sea is lacking in drama. Not so with Sergent.. The
timpanist in this Kings version seems to be playing in another room.
I took a break here to listen to Sir Charles Mackerras' version. It revived
The final part has some strong points and weak ones in this performance.
The chorus And with the blast of His nostrils is very untidy at the
beginning and the sound was awful on all of my machines as it was with the
chorus He is My God. The chorus The depths have covered them was
exquisite and very impressive. The duet for the sopranos was very attractive
but the tenor aria The enemy said was very poor. I asked the opinion
of a friend who was a tenor soloist with Sadlers Wells and, not knowing the
identity of the tenor on this recording, he offered the rather graphic view
that this performance was akin to sitting on razor blades. Bostridge's
articulation is very worrying. The final chorus has Susan Gritton showing
the boys of Kings how to sing and maintain high notes. What a lesson.
It is impossible to assess this recording. It is good in parts but there
are far too many disappointments. Having loved Handel oratorio since I was
a boy and having taken part in many of them in excellent performances I cannot
recommend this performance.