Easter is, in the end, all about redemption and new life, but musically it can be easy to forget that when we fill this time of year with Bach Passions and settings of the Requiem or Stabat Mater. Handel’s Messiah is an obvious place to look for celebration, but Royal Northern Sinfonia took an oblique view of the Easter message this year with another Handel oratorio, Israel in Egypt, which takes the story back to its Jewish roots, following the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt, as remembered in the Jewish Passover feast, and their anticipation of a new life in the Promised Land.
Israel in Egypt was one of Handel’s first oratorios, and it went through a few alterations over his lifetime; most notably he cut the whole first part, a lamentation for the death of Joseph, and his final version charges straight into the action with a tenor recitative. Conductor Nicholas McGegan led us in more gently, restoring Handel’s original overture which, with its heavy air of mourning, neatly summarised the portion cut by Handel. However, tenor Timothy Langston delivered that first recitative so authoritatively that he could easily have carried it off as an opening line.
The Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia emphasised the epic narrative of Israel in Egypt with big sweeping shapes, evoking the vast movements of people. Much of the text, assembled by Charles Jennens from the Book of Exodus, is unabashed triumphalism, but McGegan carefully avoided any suggestion that the Israelites might be gloating over the defeated Egyptians by keeping these choruses quietly thoughtful. I was moved by the sadness of “Egypt was glad”, in which a bruised nation contemplates its losses, with the three solemn trombones adding to the melancholy.
Handel uses the chorus and orchestra to great descriptive effect in the more dramatic parts of the story – the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea – and here McGegan brought out every colourful detail to great effect. Big dynamic contrast in “He rebuked the Red Sea” suggested the ebb and flow of the waters, and a really focussed pianissimo made “He sent a thick darkness” very spooky. However, the chorus were a bit thin at times, losing tone on the higher passages and often relying on the zingy energy coming from the orchestra to carry them through. The vicious orchestral blows in “He smote all the first-born” and thethunderous excitement from the double-basses, brass, and timps in the second part of “He rebuked the Red Sea” made these choruses thrillingly exciting. With a richer orchestration than Messiah, Israel in Egypt gave Royal Northern Sinfonia plenty of good Handelian fun. The oboes, bassoons and trumpets provided delightfully bouncy hailstones. The strings demanded that we sit up and listen to “The people shall fear”, and the trumpets injected their unflagging brightness into the final choruses.
As a drama that focuses on nationhood rather than individuals, there are few solos in Israel in Egypt, which is a pity when you have a line-up of six Samling Artists to enjoy. Handel gives a duet to each pair of voices, and I was struck by how well matched and blended each duet was. “The Lord is a man of war” is the only time we hear the two basses, Benjamin Lewis and Christopher Nairne, who both delivered a full, rounded tone, with plenty of power. Timothy Langston was an effective storyteller in his recitatives and, as a rare Egyptian voice, he swaggered forcefully through “The enemy said”, his seamless legato driving the line forwards. Sopranos Rowan Pierce and Elin Pritchard melted together in a heartfelt “The Lord is my strength” but each turned on her own unique qualities in their contrasting solos. Pritchard’s stirring calls to the people of Israel “Sing ye to the Lord” rang out vibrantly through the hall to usher in the final chorus, whilst Pierce floated breezily through an engaging account of “Thou didst blow with the wind”. Counter-tenor Tim Morgan was extraordinary in both of his big arias. He avoided any temptation to ham up the silliness of “Their land brought forth frogs”, instead injecting the bouncy line with a dry wit and a musical raised eyebrow. The tenderness in Royal Northern Sinfonia’s introduction to “Thou shalt bring them in” signalled that something very special was coming and Morgan’s honey-sweet tone and an amazingly well-controlled pianissimo brought an overwhelming peace.
Part One of Israel in Egypt ends with quiet faith as the people set out on their journey into the unknown. As they recap their adventures in Part Two, they move gradually towards their hope in the promised land, ending with one of Handel’s trademark choruses full of glory, in which both the chorus and orchestra of Royal Northern Sinfonia were brimming over with pure happiness.
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