George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Israel in Egypt (1739) [106.05]
Rosemary Joshua (soprano); Atsuko Suzuki (soprano); Gerhild Romberger (alto); Kobie van Rensburg (tenor); Simon Pauly (baritone); Thomas Hamberger (bass-baritone)
Choir of Bavarian Radio; Concerto Köln/Peter Dijkstra
rec. live, 28-29 November 2008
BR KLASSIK 900501 [65.52 + 40.13]
When Handel was writing Israel in Egypt in1738, he thought of a good wheeze. The oratorio was originally intended just to be a setting of Exodus chapter 15, Moses’ song; more of a grand choral anthem than a full-scale oratorio. In the new scheme, Moses’ song would be balanced with a lament for the death of Joseph and in between a narration of the plagues of Egypt. The whole oratorio would be heavily choral-based with few solos. But Handel's bright idea was to re-use the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline as part one of the oratorio, the lament for George II's wife being relatively easily converted to the Israelites’ lament for Joseph. Only, somehow the piece didn't quite take. It fell flat at the first night and subsequently Handel included extra solos for soprano La Francesina. Whilst nowadays we do not find the piece exceptional, Handel's audience probably did not appreciate an oratorio which consisted almost exclusively of choruses. The result is that Israel in Egypt has come down to us as just Parts 2 and 3, without overture and starting rather oddly with a tenor recitative.
On CD, various conductors have tried different solutions to the problem, starting the work with one or other of Handel's instrumental works. John Eliot Gardiner did approach something like Handel's original form; his recording includes the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline in its original form, but placed after Israel in Egypt. It is Andrew Parrot who first recorded the work in Handel's original format, making a strong case for Handel's conception.
Now Peter Dijkstra, the Choir of Bavarian Radio and Concerto Köln have recorded Handel's 1739 version. It’s pleasing to find another complete Israel in Egypt coming into the catalogue. And this one starts well, with a nicely modulated performance of the overture from Concerto Köln. But Israel in Egypt is a choral work and it is the choral contribution by which it must stand or fall.
For part one, it is sufficient to produce well modulated intensity, but in part two the chorus drives the narrative forward and in part three they must rise to the grandeur of Handel's celebratory choruses. The Choir of Bavarian Radio start off well, giving a creditable performance of part one and even impressing somewhat with the standard of their English.
But the performance only remains creditable and never rises above this. They are musically talented and put over the piece quite strongly. But oratorio is about words, and they simply fail to make the most of these. I'm not talking simply about diction, though theirs can be rather patchy, but rather the ability to use the text to create a dramatic impetus. This doesn't happen and Handel's marvellous choruses come out a little undercooked.
The soloists are slightly mixed group, but their contribution is of rather less importance than the choir's. Rosemary Joshua and Atsuko Suzuki make a fine contribution with The Lord is my strength and Simon Pauly and Thomas Hamberger are similarly strong in The Lord is a man of War. But tenor Kobie van Rensburg seems to suffer from rather uneven production.
The CD booklet includes an article on the background to the oratorio, plus the full text in English and German.
The recording was made live, and perhaps the problems with the performance might be attributable to the vagaries of live recording. However this is a recording whose heart is in the right place, but which doesn't quite come off. There is a slightly unformed feel to the performance and if you want to hear Israel in Egypt in its original conception then my advice would be to seek out Andrew Parrott's recording.