There is always the temptation for conductors and performers to revel in the monumental grandeur of Handel's Israel in Egypt, telling the epic Biblical story of the Israelites' Exodus under Moses from the oppressive rule of Pharaoh. Paradoxically that can be even more the case with the shortened version of 1756 in which there is a greater proportion of choral movements relative to solo numbers following the omission of several of the latter from the 1738 original. It also excludes the first part (as usually also omitted today in any case) which features the Israelites' mourning over the death of Joseph, lifted directly by Handel from his recently-composed Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, though the short instrumental prelude to that was taken to open this current performance.
With the comparatively small scale of the Academy of Ancient Music, that briefer version of the score prompted Gergely Madaras to take a more dramatically taut and lithe account of the music, with an impressive variety of choral timbres deftly elicited from the BBC Singers, and not only in the explicit word-painting of those choruses dealing with the plagues over Egypt. Madaras successfully drew alert contrasts between Handelian ceremony, narrative impetus, and a rarefied integration of textures for more serious or reflective numbers. In each case precise and emphatic enunciation of the words assisted in creating an urgent effect. Within the confines of Milton Court, however, the BBC Singers' antiphonal division for the big double choruses made little impact, though it will be interesting to see if that comes over better on the BBC Radio 3 broadcast.
In keeping with the compact and communitarian interpretation, the soloists were drawn from the Singers. Tom Raskin gave a reedily expressive performance of the recitatives which carry what little narrative there is. Whichever of the two altos sang 'Their land brought forth frogs' (the programme failed to indicate) projected it vividly, with a short cadenza swooping two or three times down to a pedal note that evinced something like disgust. Jamie W. Hall and Andrew Rupp were equally characterful and well-matched for their closely imitative lines in 'The Lord is a man of war'.
Grandeur and breadth were by no means missing from this account, with the AAM certainly tapping into that dimension of Handel’s setting, but it was the unusually alive aspect of Madaras's re-telling that stood out.
- Recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday May 16 at 7.30 p.m. (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)