United States Handel, Israel in Egypt: Soloists, The New York Choral Society and Orchestra, David Hayes (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York. 10.5.2016. (RP)
Soloists: Christine Brandes and Sarah Shafer (sopranos), Lauren Eberwein (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Bliss (tenor), Jarrett Ott (baritone) & Brandon Cedel (bass-baritone)
In Victorian England, Israel in Egypt rivaled The Messiah in terms of popularity, and it’s not hard to see why. Choruses and audiences alike revel in both its virtuosic choral writing and a text replete with wonderful lines like “their land brought forth frogs,” “there came all manner of flies and lice” and the fantastic combination of “pestilence, blotches and blains.” The choicest passages detail the ten plagues that the God of Israel inflicted upon Egypt to induce the Pharaoh to release the captive Israelites. Handel’s music is a marvel throughout, not only musically painting the graphic text but also in the use of choral forms, including fugues, antiphonal double choruses and massive homophonic ones.
Just as with The Messiah, Handel revised and reworked the oratorio after its unsuccessful premiere in 1739, so one can pick and choose from the various versions when performing it. Israel in Egypt is weighted in favor of the chorus, with relatively few recitatives and solos, although it contains some of Handel’s finest duets. For this performance, David Hayes, the Music Director of the New York Choral Society (NYCS), opted to begin with the overture to Solomon followed by the oratorio’s prelude to the original Part I, which led into “The Lamentations of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph,” “The Exodus” and the “Song of Moses”.
The chorus took obvious delight in the words, clearly enunciating them so that there was little need to refer to the texts in the program. Even with well over 100 voices, the NYCS sang with agility and clarity in the fugues. Needless to say, they could also bathe the audience in rich legato sound, especially effective in “He sent a thick darkness over the land.” When divided into two choruses, the men’s sound thinned, which was especially noticeable in the tenors. The sopranos kept their vibratos in check for the most part, which went far in helping to achieving the level of transparency that Hayes sought.
The rave reviews tenor Benjamin Bliss receives may not do him justice. His singing of the recitatives was marked by exceptional purity of tone and elegant phrasing. “The enemy said,” his sole aria, was wonderful. No one could begrudge him the bravo that rang out as its final notes sounded. Mezzo Lauren Eberwein has the classic poise and sound that one associates with this repertoire, a welcome throwback in some ways to an earlier age. Jarrett Ott and Brandon Cedel gave a bravura rendition of their duet, “The Lord is a man of war,” but the soprano soloists were a mismatched pair. Christine Brandes’ singing was marked by mannerisms and strident sound. Sarah Shafer, on the other hand, was natural and effortless, joyfully leading the triumphal final chorus, “Sing ye to the Lord.”
Hayes conducted the orchestra in a stately, sumptuous performance of the overture. Its inclusion did much to focus one’s attention and set the mood for what was to follow. The orchestra’s playing was fleet and transparent throughout, always alert to the textual nuances. We’ve come a long way from thousands of choristers performing this repertoire, but these large-scale performances still delight and are richly rewarding to choristers and audiences alike. Hayes and the NYCS keep the flame burning brightly, and the number of younger faces in the chorus offers hope that they may do so for some time to come.