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Early Music

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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Dixit Dominus - Israel in Egypt - Concerti grossi op. 3
CD 1

Dixit Dominus (HWV 232)* [34:55]
Zadok the Priest (Coronation Anthem No. 1) (HWV 258) [07:02]
Margaret Marshall (*), Felicity Palmer (*), soprano; Charles Brett (*), John Angelo Messana (*), alto; Richard Morton (*), Alistair Thompson (*), tenor; David Wilson-Johnson, bass (*)
Monteverdi Choir, Monteverdi Orchestra/John Eliot Gardiner
rec. October 1976, January 1977, Henry Wood Hall, London, UK. ADD
WARNER ERATO 2292-45136-2 [41:35]
CD 2

Concerto grosso in F, op. 3, 4a (HWV 315) [12:51]
Concerto grosso in d minor, op. 3, 5 (HWV 316) [10:24]
Concerto grosso in D, op. 3, 6 (HWV 317) [07:04]
Concerto grosso in B flat, op. 3, 2 (HWV 313) [12:05]
Concerto grosso in G, op. 3, 3 (HWV 314) [07:55]
Concerto grosso in B flat, op. 3, 1 (HWV 312) [09:58]
English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
rec. 1982. ADD
WARNER APEX 0927 48602 2 [60:16]
CDs 3-4

Israel in Egypt, oratorio in 2 parts (HWV 54)* [1.33:55]
The ways of Zion do mourn (Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline) (HWV 264)** [43:54]
Norma Burrows (**), Daryl Greene (*), Jean Knibbs (*), Elisabeth Priday (*), Marilyn Troth (*), soprano; Charles Brett (**), Julian Clarkson (*), Brian Gordon (*), Christopher Royall (*), Ashley Stafford (*), alto; Paul Elliott (*), Martyn Hill (**), William Kendall (*), tenor; Charles Stewart (*), Stephen Varcoe, bass
Monteverdi Choir, Monteverdi Orchestra/John Eliot Gardiner
rec. October 1978, All Saints', Tooting, London, UK (*); January 1978, Henry Wood Hall, London, UK (**). ADD
WARNER ERATO 2292-45399-2 [69:32 + 68:32]
Box: WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61757-2

 

The music of George Frideric Handel has accompanied John Eliot Gardiner throughout his career. Many operas, oratorios and other vocal works as well as music for orchestra have been recorded by him since the 1970s. Warner Classics has reissued some of these in this box. It is a strangely mixed package, which seems to be put together haphazardly. What is the connection between the Concerti grossi opus 3 and the vocal items? It seems to me a rather unhappy decision to put together recordings which are stylistically so different: the concerti grossi are played on period instruments, whereas the vocal items are performed with the Monteverdi Orchestra, which uses modern instruments.

A box with the vocal items only would have made much more sense, as in all of them the choir plays the main role. The fact that the oratorio Israel in Egypt mainly consists of choruses was one of the reasons the first performance in 1739 failed to captivate audiences. Originally it was written in three parts, but for the second performance Handel dropped the first part. It is the revised two-part version which is most often recorded nowadays, and that is how it is performed here.

The first part is very dramatic in its vivid description of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The texts are mainly from the book of Exodus as well as Psalms 105 and 106. In the orchestral parts Handel illustrates the plagues which afflict the Egyptian people. The second part, Moses' song, is a setting of the song Moses wrote and sang after he had led his people through the Red Sea and after the Egyptian army had been swallowed up by the waters.

I wonder if John Eliot Gardiner would be very happy with the reissue of his recording of Israel in Egypt, in particular since he has recorded it again later with the English Baroque Soloists on period instruments. It has to be said, though, that the use of modern instruments in his first recording is not the main problem. It is rather the lack of drama which makes it difficult to see how this performance could compete with more recent recordings. Some choruses are done pretty well, but others are tame, and the illustration of the plagues in the instrumental parts is seldom fully explored by the orchestra. Among the soloists only the tenors and basses are worth listening to. The sopranos are weak and produce an old-fashioned wobble, whereas the altos are too colourless.

The original first part of Israel in Egypt, 'The Lamentation of the Israelites for the death of Joseph', was an adaptation of the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, 'The Ways of Zion do mourn', which Handel composed in 1737. This is a lament on the death of Queen Caroline on texts from the Bible, in particular the book of Job and the Lamentations of Jeremiah. The performance of this piece is a good deal better than that of Israel in Egypt, also because the four soloists are much more stylish. Since the oratorio in its two-part version starts with a recitative, Gardiner used the Sinfonia from the Funeral Anthem as an overture, which means that in this set we hear that overture twice.

During his stay in Italy Handel had already composed a sacred piece which consisted mainly of brilliant and technically demanding choral sections, with relatively small parts for solo voices. The performance is simply outclassed by more recent interpretations. Some of the soloists are not acceptable any more, in particular Felicity Palmer and John Angelo Messana. The use of modern concert pitch creates a problem for one of the solo tenors. Old-fashioned traits are apparent. These include the tendency to sing and play staccato, which doesn't appear only here, but also in Israel in Egypt, and in the Coronation Anthem 'Zadok the Priest'. The latter's tempo is far too slow, which seriously damages its otherwise overwhelming impact.

The last item in this box is the set of six concerti grossi, which was published as opus 3. These recordings are made about four years later than the vocal items, but the difference is huge. This recording is still worth listening to, even though some more recent interpretations may be preferable. One year earlier than Gardiner Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded the same set with his Concentus musicus Wien. On the whole that recording is more colourful and richer in contrast.

The Concerto No. 6 consists of only two movements, but since the last movement contains a part for obbligato organ it is assumed the organist should improvise between the two movements, as Handel practised himself in his organ concertos. Alastair Ross doesn't do much else than playing chords and scales up - and downwards, whereas in Harnoncourt's recording Herbert Tachezi comes up with a more imaginative and idiomatic improvisation.

In short, I can't see a market for this box, since most performances are surpassed by more recent ones.

Johan van Veen



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