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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Israel in Egypt, oratorio in 3 parts (HWV 54)

Antonia Bourvé, Cornelia Winter, soprano; Terry Wey, Michael Hofmeister, alto; Jan Kobow, tenor; Konstantin Wolff, Markus Flaig, bass
Vocalensemble Rastatt; Les Favorites
Dir: Holger Speck

rec: June 1 - 4 & Sept 29, 2008, Rastatt, BadnerHalle
Carus - 83.423 (2 CDs) (© 2009) (1.59'46")

In various ways the oratorio Israel in Egypt is incomparable with any of Handel's oratorios. It is only one of the two which are entirely based on texts from the Bible, the other being Messiah. There is another similarity between these two: there are no characters, and the solo parts are not associated with any person from the Bible. But there is a big difference between Israel in Egypt and Messiah: although the former has six solo parts, these are not that important in comparison to the choir which has the largest part of the oratorio to sing. The weight of the choruses is even greater when the oratorio is performed in its original form, with three parts, as in this recording.

Handel started to compose Israel in Egypt only five days after completing Saul. He first composed the third part, which he called 'Moses' Song', and then proceeded with the second part, 'Exodus'. The result was an oratorio which describes how God liberates his people from slavery in Egypt, and closes with a song of praise in God's honour. But Handel apparently wanted to create an oratorio in the traditional three-part form. For the first part he returned to the Ode for the Funeral of Queen Caroline from 1737. The text was slightly adapted, and was now used as the first part of the oratorio, with the title 'The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph'.

The first part has remained its character of an anthem, and there are no solos. But it is common practice to perform the three quartets with solo voices: 'When the ear heard him', 'The righteous shall be had', and 'They shall receive a glorious kingdom'. That is also the case in the present recording.
The performances under Handel's direction were not a great success, probably mainly because of the lack of solos and the dominance of the choruses. But this was exactly what led to the oratorio's considerable popularity after Handel's death, in particular after the emergence of choral societies in the 19th century. Today it is regularly performed, but mostly without the first part.

The performances of the choral sections make or break any recording of Israel in Egypt. Here they break it. It is not that the choir isn't good, but the problem is that the conductor is delivering a bland, dynamically flat, undramatic and therefore boring performance.

The sadness of the first part is seriously underexposed, which is partly caused by the tempi which are on the fast side. Holger Speck doesn't take enough time to really explore the sorrow which is expressed in this 'Lamentation'. The orchestral playing is uninspired: the strings are bland in the quartet 'When the ear heard him', and 'They shall is receive' is simply boring. The first part shows other deficiencies which undermine this whole recording, for instance the legato singing and playing, as in 'The righteous shall be had', and the absence of clear dynamic accents, as in 'How is the mighty fall'n'.

In particular in the second part the orchestra plays a crucial role as Handel uses the instruments to depict the plagues with which God punishes the Egyptians. To this end Handel has added parts for three trombones. But they can't compensate for the lack of power of the string section, which is simply to small for an oratorio like this. It consists of 8 violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos and double bass, whereas Andrew Parrott, in his recording of 1989, uses 13 violins, 5 violas, 3 cellos and 2 double basses. It allows him to explore to the full the expressive power of Handel's score. In Speck's recording the most dramatic parts, 'He spake the word' and 'He gave them hailstones for rain', pass by without making real impact. The chorus 'He sent a thick darkness' shows that it is the interpretation of the conductor rather than the size of the orchestra which is the real problem: it lacks any tension and just plods on.

The third part is a little better; here we hear some passages which are done relatively well, like 'He is my God'. In this part the singing is better than the playing which continues to disappoint. It has to be said that it is mainly the singing of the soloists which more or less saves this part, even though they hardly make real impression. Konstantin Wolff and Markus Flaig are pretty good in 'The Lord is a man of war', and so is Jan Kobow in 'The enemy said, I will pursue', except the cadenza. Antonia Bourvé and Cornelia Winter sing 'The Lord is my strength' technically and stylistically well, but the expression is rather limited, and the strings are really bland. Terry Wey has a nice voice, but I am not convinced that he is at home in large-scale dramatic works like this. His contributions in the second (Their land brought forth frogs) and third part (Thou shalt bring them in) are well sung, but short on expression.
The closing sections are a little better than what we have heard so far, but dramatically still below par.

In short, this is a most disappointing recording and a superfluous addition to the Handel discography. Andrew Parrott (EMI) remains first choice.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Vocalensemble Rastatt & Les Favorites

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