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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Israel in Egypt HWV 54 - oratorio in three parts [119:46]
Antonia Bourvé, Cornelia Winter (sopranos); Terry Wey, Michael Hofmeister (altos); Jan Kobow (tenor); Konstantin Wolff, Markus Flaig (basses)
Vocalensemble Rastatt; Les Favorites/Holger Speck
rec. BadnerHalle, Rastatt, 14 June and 29 September 2008.
CARUS 83.423 [70:30+49:16]
Experience Classicsonline

There is much that is right about this recording. It uses an excellent edition of the work, there is a clear understanding of period style and in terms of both performance and recording it is technically satisfactory. However unfortunately I am doubtful as to whether this will be enough to attract potential purchasers given the considerable competition.  

In reviewing the recent Naxos recording of this work (see review) I commented on the vigour of Handel’s invention in “Israel in Egypt”. Listening to the present recording, whilst I am still struck by that vigour, I realise now that my view was to some degree prompted by the vigour of that performance. It is not free from fault but it does project the feeling of a live performance by performers with confidence in the work and the impact that it can make.

I am sure that if there were no competition the present recording would be warmly welcomed as filling more than adequately an important gap, and as giving at least a technically competent version of one of Handel’s finest works. However any comparisons with rivals, not only the recent Naxos version with the Aradia Ensemble under Kevin Mallon but also older recordings by, for instance, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Simon Preston, not to mention other more recent versions, show straight away what is lacking here. In short, conviction and drama. The tenor recitative starting the list of plagues near the start of Part Two may not perhaps be the most important example but it does illustrate what is wrong. It ends with the words “He turned their waters into blood”. set to a downward arpeggio with the word “blood” on an awkward low D. Most tenors nonetheless manage to produce sufficient emphasis for the crucial significance of the last word to be clear. The tenor here, however, becomes less and less audible through the phrase so that all the listener hears is that there has been a change in the waters without realizing the key importance of what they have changed to. This is not just a matter of his German accent which many of the soloists have, and which is of little importance in itself, especially given the composer’s own origins, but of a failure to project the inherent drama of the words.

That one minor example would not in itself be of great significance, but it is typical of the way in which this performance fails at points which one had thought were performer-proof. This is especially the case in Part Two, with its succession of Plague Choruses which are a gift to choirs with a sense of drama. The tempi and characterisation here repeatedly miss the mark. Admittedly Parts One and Three which are much more static in terms of their character are much more satisfactory; indeed at times are the equal of any earlier version. Nonetheless the very undramatic approach to Part Two for me is a fatal flaw.

I am sorry to have to be so negative about a performance and recording which have clearly been carefully prepared and recorded, but in the present crowded market of excellent versions of this masterpiece it cannot be regarded as being seriously competitive.

John Sheppard 

 


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