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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Israel in Egypt, oratorio (HWV 54; version in 2 parts)

Julia Doyle, Martene Grimson, soprano; Robin Blaze, alto; James Oxley, tenor; Peter Harvey, Stephan MacLeod, bass
Arsys Bourgogne; Concerto Köln
Dir: Pierre Cao

rec: Oct 2009 (live), Dijon, Auditorium/Luxemburg, Philharmonie de Luxembourg/Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées
Eloquentia - EL 1022 (2 CDs) (© 2010) (1.28'30")

Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt is one of those works which was only really appreciated after the composer's death. When it was first performed on 4 April 1739 it didn't go down that well with the audience. Their main problem was the large number of choruses, and the small number of arias, which are not virtuosic to boot. In order to meet the criticism Handel abridged the oratorio and added some arias for the second performance, three days after the premiere. It is possible that in a performance in 1740 Handel returned to the original, but for performances in the 1750s he dropped the first part and replaced it with extracts from other compositions. This recording presents the "version 1739" as the tray states. But that is not correct: we get here the version which is most often performed today, but doesn't go back to any version Handel himself ever performed. The original first part, 'The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph', is omitted. Only the symphony of that part is kept, and used as an overture to the oratorio.

Only recently I reviewed the recording of the complete original version, directed by Holger Speck (Carus). Because of his use of the first version that recording is preferable, but no alternative to what I consider the standard performance, directed by Andrew Parrott (EMI, 1990). Neither is this recording by Pierre Cao, and not just because of the 'not authentic' version.

The choir Arsys Bourgogne produces a rather dull sound, which is also marred by the vibrato in some sections, in particular the sopranos. The articulation, especially in fast passages, leaves something to be desired. In the many choruses in this work declamation is an essential element, and exactly that this choir is not very good at. The rhythmic pulse is underexposed, partly because a lack of differentation between good and bad notes. And if one compares this recording with Parrott's one has to conclude that too many elements in the text which require to be expressed in the performance are overlooked.

Some tempi are very slow, in particular the chorus 'And Israel saw that great work' at the end of Part 1 and 'The people shall hear' (Part 2). But even when the tempi are alright, the choruses give the impression of being rather slow, because the singing is too one-dimensional and not very interesting. A chorus like 'He gave them hailstones for rain' is done well, but otherwise the extraverted choruses like this lack power and impact. That is also due to the fact that the choir and the orchestra are rather too small. Concerto Köln is an excellent ensemble, but makes little impression here. In particular the strings are bland; the wind section is clearly better. There is also an overal flatness in regard to dynamics, and that is what in particular the 'war-like' choruses suffer from.

The soloists are various. Julia Doyle has a nice voice, and sings the aria 'Thou didst blow with the wind' (Part 2) really well. But the duet 'The Lord is my strength' suffers from a lack of blending between the two sopranos, in particular because of Martene Grimson's continuous vibrato. That also spoils the latter's performance of the solo part in the closing section, 'Sing ye to the Lord'. James Oxley is alright, and sings his recitatives rather well. But Robin Blaze is generally disappointing, lacking colour and giving not very engaging performances. The only aria in Part 1, 'The land brought forth frogs', is rather lacklustre, with too little expression both in the solo part and in the orchestra. Peter Harvey and Stephen MacLeod are alright in the duet 'The Lord is a man of war', but not more than that.

So, all in all, this is a disappointing affair, not recommendable and not a really worthwhile addition to the catalogue.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Arsys Bourgogne
Concerto Köln

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