‘Israel in Egypt’; Handel’s oratorio – by Bach Elgar Reply

Review by Judith Caldwell

Handel’s Israel in Egypt is rarely performed because it is such a formidable undertaking requiring a double choir of 80 voices at the very least; an accompanying orchestra, six soloists and a very courageous conductor.  The Bach Elgar Choir teamed up with The Grand River Chorus to make a double choir of 110 voices which was accompanied by a 25-member orchestra who managed to sound much bigger than their numbers suggested.  Originally Handel wrote a 45 minute opening act of lamentation for the death of Joseph, but this was not well received by his first audience.

The combined performers for Handel’s ‘ISRAEL in EGYPT’

* It is now usual to drop this entirely and begin Part I with celebratory music to represent the life of the Israelites in Egypt prior to their enslavement by Pharaoh, and then to tell of their enslavement and subsequent freeing by God with Moses’ help.  The plight of Middle East refugees unfortunately still resonates today, so the theme is timeless.
The presentation on Saturday evening was at the acoustically marvellous St. Thomas Church in Waterdown.  It is a large venue perfectly suited to such a large oratorio.  Conductor Alexander Cann chose to use the Overture from Solomon and then tenor Zach Finklestein and counter tenor Richard Cunningham led the audience straight into the story of oppression by the new Pharaoh ‘who knew not Joseph’.  Finklestein has excellent diction and presented his recitatives and solos with drama and conviction so that they came alive.  Cunningham is a consummate performer who is simply a joy to hear and to watch even when he is singing with relish about the plagues besetting Egypt.
The whole of Part I is filled with evocative music, the doleful choruses ‘He turned their waters into blood’; the jumpy music when ‘their land brought forth frogs’, the buzz of ‘flies and lice in all quarters’ and the thunder of hailstones.  After the slow foreboding of ‘He sent a thick darkness over the land’ and the chant-like ‘He smote all the first-born’ the mood suddenly changes as the Israelites are allowed to go free.
Part I concludes with a typical Handel Chorus in eight parts for a double choir which was glorious.  Part II is Moses’ Song (Exodus 15) and includes a soprano duet, a bass duet, a tenor and alto duet, and an eight person ensemble accompanied by double choir.  The sopranos were Andrea Ludwig and Alexei Wing whose voices blended very nicely in “The Lord is my strength and my song”.  Basses were Bob Knight and Taylor Webb who handled the very difficult ‘The Lord is a man of war’ extremely well and really drowned the captain deep in the Red Sea.  Finklestein did an excellent job of threatening to ‘draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them’ sung with grim determination.  Cunningham’s alto solo “Thou shall bring them in’ was amazing, he made an extremely difficult piece of music sound so simple and natural that it was hard not to clap when it finished.  Interspersed with these solos were the big, wonderful Handel choruses “I will sing to the Lord’, ‘Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power’  and the resounding wrap-up of ‘The Lord shall reign for ever and ever’ leading to a well-deserved standing ovation.​   The double choir, soloists and orchestra presented an extraordinary performance under the direction of Cann, who looked as though he enjoyed it as much as the audience.   Go to www.bachelgar.com for info on next year’s concerts.

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