These days it has become rather rare to hear the whole three-part version of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt. There is something to be said for the composer’s later two-part version, which provides quite a concentrated burst of excitement, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the original version from time to time. This year in Göttingen, a primarliy local ensemble presented the version beginning with “The sons of Israel do mourn”, modified from the even earlier use of the funeral music for Queen Caroline (“The ways of Zion do mourn”). This first part was quite noticeably separated from the rest, with a long-ish interval between parts one and two, and an enlargement of both choir and orchestra after the pause. 

Theresia Taube © Göttingen International Handel Festival
Theresia Taube
© Göttingen International Handel Festival

Perhaps in compensation for including all of Part 1, a number of choruses and segments of chorus were eliminated from Part 3, namely, “Thou sendest forth Thy wrath”, “And with the blast of Thy nostrils”, “The earth swallow’d them” and “The people shall hear”.

The period instrument orchestra Ensemble Antico, with a few members of the FestspielOrchester Göttingen, was led by Stefan Kordes, who is becoming quite familiar to Göttingen Handel Festival attendees. Part one featured the choir Kammerchor St Jacobi, who were joined after the interval by Kantorei St Jacobi. The continuo section was more than adept, with spirited playing by harpsichordist Sabine Erdmann. 

Israel is known as being rather chorus-heavy compared with most of Handel’s oratorios, but there is work for soloists, too: an extra bass being added to the basic SATB line-up, for example. This concert featured four solid German singers, with the extra low voice being taken by American Todd Boyce, who is also appearing in the festival opera Lotario (as Clodomiro).  Soprano Theresia Taube has a lovely, clear tone, and some of her solo pieces – perhaps most notably her final “Sing ye to the Lord” and ringing annunciation of “gloriously” – were taken from a position in the back of the venue, from whence she made the most of the natural acoustics. The alto, Nicole Pieper, produced an affecting “Thou shalt bring them in”, and tenor Henning Kaiser impressed with his penetrating top notes, clear diction and dramatic emphasis in “He turned their waters into blood”. The other bass, Henryk Böhm, carried most of the work, and joined with Boyce for an arresting “The Lord is a man of war”.

Kammerchor St. Jacobi © Frank Stefan Kimmel
Kammerchor St. Jacobi
© Frank Stefan Kimmel

The opening symphony was slow and sonorous. The choir displayed great discipline in “How is the mighty fallen” and had some very nice hushed a capella moments. While the initial choir –particularly the sopranos – sounded nicely transparent in Part 1, the expanded choral line-up in Parts 2 and 3 lost something of that edge. Nevertheless the combined forces, with the occasional addition of three trombones, two trumpets and timpani, built up excellent levels of excitement in the choruses in which they featured. The various plagues of Egypt were well rendered: the frogs hopped around, the flies buzzed, and one could certainly hear the hail falling and running along the ground. Nobody has ever quite matched James Bowman’s oleaginous pronunciation of “frogs”, but Pieper proficiently managed the onomatopoeic rendition of amphibians, pestilence, blotches and blains. The sense of the water overwhelming the Israelites’ enemies near the end of Part 2 was palpable.

In Part 3, it is this motif of the Egyptians succumbing to the Red Sea that dominates, particularly the trope of the horse and his rider thrown into sea. So, it is a pity that it was somewhat truncated. Nevertheless the relevant choruses created the necessary thrills, and it was all much appreciated by the audience.