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GRAMOPHONE (11/2023)
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Reviewer :
 Richard Lawrence


Handel’s Israel in Egypt is presented here in an excellent performance, from a concert at Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, but in an adaptation about which I have serious reservations. Handel’s first oratorio set to words from the Bible (the second and last was Messiah) is above all a choral work, and Apollo’s Singers, 27 strong, is a choir of impressive versatility. With the successive entries of the voices in the chorale that begins ‘The sons of Israel do mourn’ they quietly set the sombre tone of the Israelites’ lament for the death of Joseph, while the double-dotted phrases of the contrasting ‘How is the mighty fall’n!’ are no less intense. In parts 2 and 3, much of the writing is for double choir: the antiphonal to and fro of ‘He spake the word’ (the plague of flies, lice and locusts) is thrilling; so too is the final chorus of triumph, the semiquaver runs as precise as one could wish.


The solo airs go well. First up is Daniel Moody, who relishes every word in the plague of frogs and the ‘blotches and blains … on man and beast’ but administers a blotch of his own with an extravagant cadenza. He makes amends with a delicate account of ‘Thou shalt bring them in’. Jacob Perry is suitably brisk – but euphonious – in ‘The enemy said, I will pursue’. Margaret Carpenter Haigh phrases exquisitely in ‘Thou didst blow with the wind’, the flowing accompaniment belying the far from gentle words (‘they sank as lead in the mighty waters’). As for the duets, Haigh and Molly Netter sing as one in ‘The Lord is my strength’, curiously wistful with its Neapolitan harmony; while Moody and Perry offset each other beautifully in ‘Thou in thy mercy’, an ‘anything you can do’ number likewise in the minor mode.


Apollo’s Fire, playing on period instruments, are magnificent. The violins really come into their own in the plagues: hopping about as frogs, buzzing away as flies. The tutti passages, with trumpets, trombones and timpani, ring forth in Georgian splendour. Jeannette Sorrell conducts her own version of the oratorio with energy and sensitivity. I particularly liked her way with the ‘hailstones’ chorus: six slow, rhetorical bars followed by an accelerando before the chorus bursts in. The first-born of Egypt are smitten with great, staccato force. And her allocation to the soloists of passages that Handel wrote for the chorus is understandable. Why, then, the reservations? Israel in Egypt plays for about two hours and a quarter; this version runs for 75 minutes, heavily cut, Sorrell writes, ‘in order to keep the length of the oratorio manageable for modern audiences’. Leaving aside the question of whether audiences need such nannying, it is reasonable to expect a recording to be complete. It’s true that Handel made cuts, abridgements and additions immediately after the unsuccessful premiere, and indeed later. But he never cut ‘They loathed to drink of the river’ or ‘But as for his people’. He certainly wouldn’t have added the bass air with chorus, ‘To God our strength’ – which concluded the rewritten part 1 when the piece was revived in 1756 – to replace ‘The Lord is a man of war’ in part 3. (It is, though, handsomely performed by Edward Vogel and, on trumpet and oboe, Steven Marquardt and Debra Nagy.) And he would have been apoplectic at ‘Their bodies are buried in peace’ not being answered by ‘but their name liveth evermore’. (A precise analogy would be the omission of ‘by man came also the resurrection’ after ‘Since by man came death’ in Messiah.)


So a fine performance of a drastically reduced version. (There are internal cuts too.) A lovely souvenir if you were at the concert. If you weren’t, caveat emptor. For a complete account, try Andrew Parrott (EMI, 2/91) or Stephen Cleobury (Decca, 10/00).

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