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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759), arr. Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 - 1847): Israel in Ägypten (HWV 54) (version 1833)

Monika Frimmer, Veronika Winter, soprano; Heike Grötzinger, contralto; Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor; Ekkehard Abele, Gregor Finke, bass
Rheinische Kantorei; Das Kleine Konzert
Dir: Hermann Max

rec: Sept 26, 2001 (live), Knechtsteden, Basilika
CPO - 777 222-2 (2 CDs) (© 2009) (1.23'00")

It is generally known that Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was strongly interested in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Far less known is his interest in George Frideric Handel. He not only performed Bach's St Matthew Passion, he also conducted performances of various oratorios of Handel. Apparently Israel in Egypt was his favourite Handel composition: between 1833 and 1844 he conducted no less than five performances of the complete oratorio. Furthermore he performed parts from this work during various concerts.

The first performance dates from 1833 when he was asked to serve as the conductor of the Fifteenth Lower Rhine Music Festival. Traditionally the first concert of the festival was devoted to an 18th-century oratorio. In 1833 the festival committee had chosen Handel's Israel in Egypt. This performance wasn't the first to take place in Germany. Carl Friedrich Zelter had given a performance in Berlin in 1831 with his Sing-Akademie. He had used a translation by J.O.H. Schaum, but Mendelssohn used a new translation which was published in 1826 by Karl Breidenstein. The two main sources for Mendelssohn's performance were a second-hand copy of Samuel Arnold's English edition of 1792 - which was quite close to Handel's autograph - as well as Schaum's arrangement which also didn't move far away from the original.

The instrumental scoring was adapted to the circumstances of the performance. There was no organ available, and therefore a pair of clarinets were added. In other performances, when Mendelssohn did have an organ, no clarinets were used. In Düsseldorf the recitatives were accompanied by two cellos. Schaum's instrumentation included four horn parts, and a distinction was made between solo and ripieno parts.

Shortly before his Düsseldorf performances Mendelssohn visited England and took the opportunity to have a look at the original sources of the oratorio. He received some help from George Smart, a conductor in London who was considered a Handel authority. It was due to him that Mendelssohn included an aria which Handel had added for the second performance of his oratorio as well as recitatives which Smart claimed to be by Handel as well. (They have turned out to be written by Handel's assistent John Christopher Smith instead.) At the same time some parts of the oratorio had to be cut, and as a result this version is different in a number of aspects from Handel's original as we know it.

This performance is historically very interesting, in particular because of all the efforts by Mendelssohn to find out what exactly Handel had written down. In his programme notes Thomas Synofzik rightly states: "This sort of critical examination of the available editions on the basis of the original sources distinguished Mendelssohn's Handel performances and serves to link them to today's historicizing musical practice".

It is much more problematic to reconstruct Mendelssohn's Düsseldorf performance in practice. His choir consisted of 275 singers and the orchestra of 134 players. "Practical considerations made it necessary in the end to abandon our original plan to approximate the ensemble sizes of the music festival performance to a choral and orchestral course project", Thomas Synofzik explains. Therefore the forces in this recording are considerably smaller in size than in 1833: a choir of 29 singers (7/7/8/7) - among them some of the soloists - and an orchestra of 10 violins, and two players each on viola, cello, double bass, transverse flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and trumpet, plus three trombones and timpani. As a result the full power of Mendelssohn's performance can't be recreated. But this recording certainly gives some idea about the way Mendelssohn treated the oratorio by a composer he greatly admired.

The solo parts are sung well, with Monika Frimmer taking the more dramatic soprano parts - in particular the aria 'Hoffnung lindert unsre Schmerzen' (after Handel's aria from the second performance). The bass parts are mainly sung by Ekkehard Abele, but as the booklet doesn't indicate which parts are sung by whom I haven't been able to figure out what exactly Gregor Finke is singing. Hans Jörg Mammel sings the recitatives beautifully, in truly declamatory style, but without falling into the trap of treating them in a 'baroque' way. Heike Grötzinger is a little disappointing as she uses quite a lot of vibrato. She also has some problems with the lowest notes in the duet 'Die Himmel sind dein'.

This is the recording of a live performance and that is noticeable from some background noises now and then and some insecurities in the choruses. But otherwise choir and orchestra deliver very fine performances, communicating the power of the score as far as their size allows.

The booklet contains a lengthy essay about the history of the Düsseldorf performance, which also gives a fascinating insight in the way the 19th century approached music of the past. The lyrics are included with an English translation.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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