United Kingdom Handel, Israel in Egypt: Ilse Eerens, Soraya Mafi (sopranos), Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), James Gilchrist (tenor),Thomas Oliemans, Ashley Riches (basses), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, SCO Chorus, Peter Dijkstra (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 24.11.2016. (SRT)
Israel in Egypt is a problematic work. For one thing, it’s a good example of Handel’s all-or-nothing approach to vocal music: the operas contain hardly any choruses, but in Israel there’s hardly anything else! It’s a testament to this SCO performance that the solos were so memorable, led by narrator James Gilchrist who hurled himself into the tenor part with vigorous abandon and impeccable diction. He was partnered by a glistening, radiant lead soprano from Ilse Eerens, whose voice felt like refreshment for the ears. Soraya Mafi matched her well, and the pair of basses had a great time in ‘The Lord is a man of war’. The crowning glory, however, was the angelic voice of Iestyn Davies, getting through the frogs to sound at his most ethereal in ‘Thou shalt bring them in’.
The main problem with Israel in Egypt, however, is that all the best bits are in the first half. The extended praise-giving of the second part all becomes a bit worthy, despite the quality of the music. The best fun is to be had in the drama of Part One, with the buzzing flies, thunderous hail, creepy darkness and tumultuous waves that engulf the Egyptians. For all those things we had to thank the SCO on their most period-sensitive form, with vibrato-light strings and natural brass providing great colour, as well as a timpanist who was mostly fairly reined in until he let rip at the return of the Red Sea.
The chorus themselves kept up their very fine run of form established by last month’s L’Enfance du Christ in a performance of colour, variety and proper musical rigour in the fugal climaxes. Conversely, they could make moments like ‘The depths have covered them’ sound beguilingly (and curiously) like a lullaby. They’re sounding great at the moment, and they seem to be flourishing under Gregory Batsleer’s leadership. None of that stopped my fingers from drumming in the second half, but that’s more Handel’s fault than theirs.
The SCO’s perennial problem in Edinburgh when the chorus are singing is that a work like Israel in Egypt won’t sell enough tickets to justify using the huge Usher Hall, but the overall impact of the sound overwhelms the up-close acoustic of the Queen’s Hall. Exciting plans are afoot to address this for good, however, as they have unveiled plans to build a new thousand-seater concert hall and home for the orchestra by St Andrews’ Square. Speed the day! See this article for more information.