Handel: Israel in Egypt

Julia Doyle, Maria Valdmaa, David Allsopp, James Gilchrist, Roderick Williams, Peter Harvey SScTBB, Nederlands Kamerkoor, Le Concert Lorrain, Roy Goodman
127:45 (2 CDs)
Et’cetera KTC1517

One shouldn’t compare recordings of different works by different artists, even if the composer is the same. However, having just listened to FestspielOrchester Göttingen’s live recording of Joshua, I was deep into the world of Handel oratorio and thus expectant of a similarly absorbing oral experience thanks to this recording of Israel in Egypt. Much to my surprise, however, I found my attention wandering halfway through the first chorus. After listening to end of the first CD, I returned to the first chorus and was struck by the density of sound that it presented. On second listening, I didn’t find it so shocking as before, partly because my ears had adjusted to the difference in sound between Le Concert Lorrain/Nederlands Kammerkoor and FestspielOrchester Göttingen/NDR Chor. However, I realised that my expectation throughout the symphony was of a lighter introduction to the work, despite its dark and awesome beginning. The orchestral sound is, to my taste, too dense at all times in the choruses, lacking subtleties of phrasing. The choir, on the other hand, present a highly polished sound which conveys very well the sense of awe and majesty appropriate to the story. Their subtleties of phrasing are, unfortunately, not always audible over the orchestral sound. However, the arias are a completely different case. In each aria, the orchestra accompanies in a hugely sympathetic and imaginative manner. One can only assume, therefore, that the dense texture of the chorus accompaniment was an artistic decision.

Each of the soloists (this time very well known) is excellent, though with the odd fleeting moment of strain sounding in Peter Harvey’s voice, particularly in the quartet ‘The righteous shall be had’, which is rather high in tessitura.

A rather general and brief overview of the context of the work’s composition (mostly recycling relatively well-known facts) makes up half of the booklet notes. The other half consists of ‘some personal thoughts’ from Roy Goodman. These start unfortunately as an exercise in self-advertisement but, after the initial paragraph, are actually very informative and interesting. The recording is of the complete original three-part version, performed at the premiere on 4 April 1739, and thus includes the opening Larghetto of the organ concerto, HWV 295) completed by Handel on 2 April and played by the composer as an introduction to Part II.

Violet Greene