Israel in Egypt
Philips 432 110-2
Recorded in 1990 and 1993.
Released in 1995.
Philips DUO 473 304-2 PM2
Reissued in 2002.
Sopranos: Ruth Holton, Elizabeth Friday, Donna Deam
Alto: Ashley Stafford, Michael Chance, Patrick Collin, Jonathan Peter Kenny
Tenor: Nicholas Robinson, Philip Salmon, Paul Tindall, Andrew Tusa
Bass: Julian Clarkson, Christopher Purves
The Monteverdi Choir
The English Baroque Soloists (on period instruments)
John Eliot Gardiner
Israel in Egypt recorded at Göttingen and London in 1990.
Coronation Anthems recorded at Paris in 1993.
John Eliot Gardiner is a conductor who understands Handel to the very core, although he has here recorded only Parts 2 and 3 of Handel’s first design – yet this is a shorter version that the composer himself created and which has since become the standard format. Gardiner omits the version of the funeral anthem The Ways of Zion do Mourn that Handel adapted for use in 1738, but retains its magnificent overture. Beginning with ‘Exodus’, it goes straight into the midst of things.
Gardiner’s professional mixed choir is oppressed with burdens, spitting out staccato “they oppressed them”, and then languishing in tears when they “cry” to Heaven. So, from the very start of the performance, it is clear that Gardiner means the business. This is a conductor at the height of his powers in music he knows in his heart: the grandeur and monumentality of Handel’s musical architecture is thoroughly understood and shown to wonderful effect in this recording. (Incidentally, when Beethoven referred to Handel as the greatest komponisten, didn’t he mean ‘musical architect’…?).
Let’s get the weakest element out of the way so that my panegyric can recommence: Ashley Stafford’s account of the frogs is insecure, and he completes his air with a hideously rash decoration. Yet Gardiner gets across in this otherwise-vapid air the sense of the leaping fleas of pestilence and pustule. The tremendous flies and lice chorus overwhelms, as the elements of earth, fire, air, and water beset humanity. In these vast choruses a key criterion by which to judge their performance is whether or not the individual parts can be heard as much as possible. They can.
Even the orchestral parts are distinguishable in the loudest sections. This is great music-making. To one’s instant relief there are no fallacious pluckers in the continuo: you will hear no lute, guitar or any other interloper. The continuo in the recitatives on this recording includes the double bass, which gives depth and significance to the sound. The organs throughout are muted.
Handel’s severe minor-key setting of “Egypt was glad” (my italics) is the curious last chorus in ‘Exodus’, and Gardiner endows it with thoughtfulness; the Egyptians’ exultation that follows, a mixture of exhaustion and relief, is utterly convincing. Immediately in ‘Moses’ Song’ the incomparable Gardiner is once more a sure-fire manager of Handel’s own unrivalled capacity to strike unexpectedly like a thunderbolt with the minimum of means. The airs and duets in ‘Moses’ Song’ are sung in a way that adds to the incremental power and force of the music as number succeeds number. The soprano duet is refreshingly free from a too-languorous treatment of “be-come”, though I was disappointed not to be able to make out the tenors’ flourish in the closing bars of “He is my God”. The bellicose basses rant with fine style in their orotund display of hubris in “The Lord is a Man of War”, and the tenor succeeds them splendidly, boasting of the enemy’s destruction.
And then there is the nautical sequence of choruses, of an outstanding quality without parallel in all music. Handel’s choral ‘symphony’ takes us from vainglory and empty triumph to the realm of renewed life as well as contemplating the despair of oblivion. Gardiner’s interpretation of the obsessive and relentless thirst for revenge in ‘The Enemy said’ lifted me from my seat because he communicates all too well the evil zeal for rape and pillage. If anyone is looking for Gardiner’s hallmark in conducting, they need look no further than the ‘obbligato’ line shared by the organ, cello, viola, and bassoon in ‘Thou didst blow’: it is so clear and, above all, characterised. In Handel’s finest chorus, ‘The People shall hear’, the lub-dub heartbeat rhythm is taken slower than I’ve ever heard it before, and it succeeds thrillingly. When the vanquished drown, the lub-dub stops; palpitation is extinguished.
Recently I read of a standing ovation that lasted for many minutes at the end of a performance of Israel by Gardiner and his team. It is not difficult to see why on the evidence of this live recording, complete with turning-over of music scores and occasional coughs adding to the immediacy of the event. The performance of “Zadok the Priest” and “The King Shall Rejoice” is entirely up to the same standard. The brass in particular is beautifully incisive, and the choir continues to sing each part with its customary clarity and sharp diction.
It seems that The Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra (the company that manages Gardiner's choir and two period instrument orchestras) has recently been in financial danger. Their loss would be a tragedy of the most lamentable kind. We Handelians have come to rely on the pinpoint accuracy of this choir and orchestra; generally speaking, Gardiner's soloists are well-schooled in how to interpret and not merely 'sing' the notes. If lost, the likes of John Eliot Gardiner and his band will not be easy to replace, so grab this reissue while you can: it presents music-making at the very highest standard.
© Les Robarts - January 2003
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