United Kingdom Chipping Campden Music Festival  – Handel: BBC Singers, Academy of Ancient Music / Gergely Madaras (conductor). St. James’ Church, Chipping Campden 13.5.2019. (JQ)
Handel – Israel in Egypt
Handel composed Israel in Egypt in 1738 at breakneck speed – just as he was later to do with Messiah. Originally the oratorio was in three parts; for Part I Handel adopted his funeral anthem The Ways of Zion do Mourn as a lament for the death of Joseph. However, he had second thoughts, excising Part I after a couple of performances. Occasionally one hears the tri-partite original today, but most performances present just the much tauter two-part version and that’s what we heard.
What an astonishing example of Handel’s genius is Israel in Egypt! I can’t readily think of a pre-twentieth century oratorio in which so much of the musical argument is given to the choir and in which there are so few solo opportunities. And what choruses they are! Handel composed a series of choruses, many for double choir, of infinite variety and resource, which illustrate the story in a most dramatic and inventive fashion.
The extent to which the choir dominates this masterpiece was all the more evident tonight since, for whatever reason, Gergely Madaras chose to omit virtually all the solo numbers in Part II. Part I contains only a couple of tenor recitatives and an alto aria, all of which we heard. However, with the exception of the bass duet, ‘The Lord is a man of war’, all the solos were cut in Part II, even though they were printed in the programme. This meant that four numbers were excised, including the flashing aria for tenor, ‘The enemy said’ and, most damaging of all, the wonderful alto aria, ‘Thou shalt bring them in’. I don’t know why these cuts were made and they damaged the musical and dramatic balance of Part II. On the evidence of the solos we did hear, all taken by members of the BBC Singers, Madaras had suitable voices at his disposal had he opted to include the Part II solos. As it was, the performance occupied fractionally less than 90 minutes by my watch, including an interval of just under 15 minutes, and the concert ended a full half hour before the advertised time of 9pm.
The music that we did hear, however, was excitingly performed. I had not previously encountered the young Hungarian conductor Gergely Madaras but he impressed me. He injected vigour and drama into much of the music and he was equally responsive to the calmer passages in Handel’s score. I particularly liked the way he ensured that dynamic contrasts were used for telling effect, both by the chorus and orchestra. On a few occasions, mainly in Part I, I wished he had left less of a gap between choruses s as to maintain momentum, but this was a minor matter. Overall, Madaras’s direction of the piece was sure-footed, stylish and exciting.
Though I would by no means wish to suggest that Handel oratorios should not be sung by large-ish choirs, provided they are well-trained and well-disciplined, this composer’s choral works are usually heard to best advantage when a small, elite choir performs them. Arguably, that’s especially true of Israel in Egypt which is full of technically demanding choruses. These need great precision and accuracy – especially in the fast music – if they’re to make their maximum impact. The highly trained professional voices of the BBC Singers are ideally equipped for such a task. Tonight, we heard a chorus of just 20 singers (6/5/4/5). They were positioned behind the small orchestra and only slightly raised up. There were one or two occasions when the full ensemble was singing and playing at maximum volume when I might have wished for just a few more singers to ensure that the vocal parts came through with ideal clarity. However, for most of the performance the choir’s music came over very well indeed, even though my seat was right at the rear of the church nave. Of course, it helps that the acoustics of St. James’ Church are so exceptionally good: in my experience one can hear music with perfect clarity from any point in the building. If I have a regret about the composition of the choir it would be that all the altos were female. In music such as this there are great benefits if the alto section includes at least some male singers with their tonal cutting edge. The BBC Singers don’t have any male altos so that timbre was lost to us: a mixture of male and female alto voices would have been the icing on the cake.
The BBC Singers were tremendous throughout the performance. They made the big, dramatic choruses sound absolutely thrilling – the jubilant chorus that opens Part II was a case in point – and the great choruses of celebration with which the work ends – especially the last – were magnificent. Earlier in the work, Handel’s choral writing is not only virtuoso in its demands but also astonishingly illustrative. The BBC Singers depicted the plagues visited on Egypt in gripping fashion: for instance, the depiction of the hailstorm (superbly reinforced by the orchestra) was distinguished by crisp ensemble and terrific attack. When the choir told us that ‘He smote all the first-born of Egypt’, the way the word ‘smote’ was almost spat out, accompanied by knife-edge chords in the orchestra, was graphic. A few minutes later the choir sang ‘Egypt was glad when they departed’: after such a depiction of the plagues, I bet the Egyptians were delighted to see the back of the Israelites!
No less impressive was the singing of the quieter passages. ‘He sent a great darkness’ was invested with great, hushed tension and, a little later, ‘He led them forth like sheep’ demonstrated excellent lightness of vocal touch and a fine ensemble legato. For me, perhaps the highlight of the evening was the Part II chorus, ‘The people shall hear’. This great chorus had it all: fine dynamic control and contrasts; expertly articulated dotted rhythms (in the orchestra too); and tremendous intensity.
The Academy of Ancient Music contributed hugely to the success of the performance. The band was not large: seven violins, two each of violas and cellos, a single double bass together with pairs of oboes and bassoons, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani plus harpsichord and chamber organ. The playing from all sections was consistently alert and stylish; individually and collectively, the players were flexible and responsive. I relished the contributions of the trio of trombones. Handel uses those instruments to arresting effect in Israel and the AAM’s trombonists made a fine showing.
There aren’t many solo numbers in the oratorio and, as I said earlier, we were deprived of most of these. The ones that were performed were all done well by various members of the BBC Singers. Tom Raskin projected the tenor recitatives clearly. Jessica Gillingwater offered agile and characterful singing in ‘Their land brought forth frogs’, though the lowest notes reminded us that Handel really had a male voice in mind here. Andrew Rupp and Jamie Hall were firm of tone in the bass duet, ‘The Lord is a man of war’ and articulated the music expertly. At the end, soprano Emma Tring brought silver clarity to Miriam’s short solos.
This was a most exciting account of Israel in Egypt. It’s one of Handel’s most imaginative scores and I struggle to think of one that makes a greater impact. The music was done full justice tonight in an expert, often thrilling performance. I enjoyed the evening immensely. I shall be fascinated to experience in a few weeks’ time the contrast when I hear the work performed in Mendelssohn’s version at the Three Choirs Festival.
For more about Chipping Campden Music Festival 2019 click here.