Handel – Israel in Egypt, HWV 54
Mary Bevan (soprano)
Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Magid El-Bushra (counter-tenor)
Ben Johnson (tenor)
Ben Davies (bass)
Sam Evans (bass)
The London Chorus
New London Orchestra (organ: Jane Watts)
Ronald Corp (conductor)
This performance of Israel in Egypt was given, as is customary, without the funeral anthem for Queen Caroline, The ways of Zion do mourn. Although perfectly defensible, such an omission always leaves a problem in terms of how Handel’s oratorio should begin, given that the first part will open baldly with a tenor recitativo secco. Here the ‘overture’ gap was filled with Handel’s thirteenth organ concerto, in F major, HWV 295, ‘The cuckoo and the nightingale’. It received an adequate if hardly sparkling reading, with Jane Watts as soloist. At least it prepares the way for the F major chord with which the recitative opens.
Israel in Egypt is unusual amongst Handel’s oratorios, more so even than Messiah, not only in that there is little dramatic narrative – it could hardly be staged in the way that, say, Saul, Jephtha, or Theodora, to name but a few, could – but also in the preponderance of choral writing. This, of course, is one of the glories of Handel's œuvre and is one of the reasons why his oratorios as a whole remain greatly superior to his operas, with their tedious plots and still more tedious interminable alternation of recitative and aria. (The oratorio stories, even in this case, are better too.) But one needs a good chorus and sadly the London Chorus often proved inadequate to the task, giving the sort of performance that gives pause to thought for those of us who would happily extol the virtues of the English choral society tradition and readily defend it against ‘authenticist’ sniping. Intonation was far from atrocious but often almost as far from precise. One could not, however, ignore the general wooliness of the tone, especially in quieter and slower passages and especially from the tenors. The feeble opening of ‘They loathed to drink of the river’ was a particularly notable example but far from unique. And there was often a general lack of rhythmic tightness, for which considerable responsibility must lie with the conductor, Ronald Corp. ‘But as for his people,’ was alarmingly limp. There is a case for a revisionist ‘pastoral’ quality to the chorus; however, the people are ‘led forth ... like sheep,’ not like truculently wayward yet strangely fey carthorses. Those choruses calling for celebration or some other vigorous quality fared better, even if they fell short of resounding success. More might have been made in terms of antiphonal effect in Handel’s great double choruses but it was present to a degree.
Other aspects of the performance stood out more positively. A few minor faults aside, the New London Orchestra sounded good, although it could profitably have been enlarged. Strings, balanced – or not – against quite a large chorus were only 4:3:2:2:1. One could nevertheless readily hear the coming forth of ‘all manner of flies’. The trumpets of Nicholas Thompson and Simon Gabriel imparted a thrilling edge to the largest-scale choruses, as did Chris Nall’s kettledrums, allowing the waters of the Red Sea truly to overwhelm Pharoah’s men. There is not much for most of the vocal soloists to do, but they did it well. Countertenor Magid El-Bushra had more and did it with excellence. There was a winning spring to ‘Their land brought forth frogs,’ also characterised by crystal clear articulation and impeccable command of line. He was not afraid to apply a light vibrato to his arias, adding to rather than obscuring the beauty of his contribution. On this evidence, El-Bushra deserves to go far indeed.