Israel in Egypt – Oratorio in three parts to a libretto attributed to Charles Jennens taken from the Bible [sung in English]
Natalie Montakhab (soprano), Alexandra Gibson (alto), Greg Tassell (tenor), Benjamin Bevan & Timothy Nelson (baritones)
London Handel Orchestra
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 2 April, 2014
Venue: St George’s, Hanover Square, London
Long before Hollywood made its Biblical epics in glorious Technicolor, Handel turned the memorable events of ancient Israel’s history into some of the finest musical dramas ever written in the English language. Even though Israel in Egypt (1738) does not feature a cast of named characters (like Messiah) it is one of Handel’s grandest musical narratives. It tells the story of the Israelites’ escape, under Moses, from bondage in Egypt, through a bold sequence of mainly choral numbers.
In view of that, the relatively limited dimensions of St George’s, Hanover Square did not provide the space in which such music could best resound. Perhaps to make up for this compromise, the performance offered the rare chance to hear the work’s original tripartite structure, Part One being a lament on the death of Joseph (usually omitted) and taken over entirely by Handel (with only a few textual variations) from his anthem for the funeral of Queen Caroline in 1737.
No role is more prominent in this Oratorio than the chorus, and here the members of Pegasus certainly became more engaged with it from one Part to the next. They seemed to articulate an overarching crescendo across the three sections, progressing from mournful reserve, vivid representation of the ten plagues in Egypt, to evident triumph.
More solemnity and weight could have been useful early on, though the London Handel Orchestra’s almost flippant way with the opening Sinfonia did not help. At times the choir sounded a touch stodgy and meandering, needing to draw some greater tonal contrasts – for instance the depiction of the plague of darkness was a bit thin. Nor did these singers ever quite master the fast melismas of Handel’s intricate counterpoint, which sounded a little muddled. But otherwise they responded well to Adrian Butterfield’s detailed realisation of the text, as well as building a dramatic sweep.
Four of the vocal soloists (minus Timothy Nelson) appeared together for all their appearances in Part One but were not very cohesive. Natalie Montakhab and Alexandra Gibson came together musically much better in their Part Three duet ‘The Lord is my strength’. Likewise, Benjamin Bevan and Nelson were tonally well matched for the duet ‘The Lord is a man of war’. By herself, Gibson was most at ease in her tender solo ‘Thou shalt bring them in’, whilst Montakhab never had the chance to get quite in her stride. Greg Tassell had no such problem, exuding a mellifluous authority, and also persuasive swagger for the Egyptians’ boasts in ‘The enemy said’.
The LH Orchestra was more often dutiful than inspired, though the numbers with trumpet and drums were rousing, and the plagues well delineated, not least in depicting the blows of the Lord’s smiting the Egyptians’ first-born sons. If it is not a contradiction, this was a domestic, not especially dramatised, performance of Israel in Egypt, but within those parameters, it was generally animated and stirring.