March 2011: Handel Israel in Egypt

Exeter Cathedral, Saturday 26 March 2011, 7.30pm

Source: Simon Foxall

Neglected Masterpiece Brought To Life

It’s easy enough to find an audience for Handel’s Messiah. It’s a little harder for Israel in Egypt, at one time recognised as one of the composer’s towering achievements. On Saturday night Exeter Festival Chorus, under the direction of former King’s Singers star, Nigel Perrin, made a compelling case for the work to be heard more often. Indeed, so remarkable were some of the movements that we really needed an immediate encore.

The choir was fortunate to be joined by the Baroque instrumental ensemble Music for Awhile. The choir treasurer might not have been delighted about the financial implications of hiring such an august group, but from the opening chords we knew the outlay was justified. The leader, Margaret Faultless, enjoying the reverberant acoustic, let the rich chords search out the far reaches of the Cathedral. The balance accentuated the middle of the texture, with violas often dominating to miraculous effect. Using a Baroque orchestra isn’t just about the instruments. The players of an ensemble of this calibre are real specialists who understand and believe in the composer’s intentions.

It’s the choir, though, which has the biggest task in this work. Here we perhaps have the key to the comparative rarity of performances these days. I counted 22 chorus movements in this version of the piece, often featuring complex chromatic fugues for eight voice parts. In the first half Handel is merciless. The choir hardly has a break. The Egyptians too have a hard time in this piece. They face incessant plagues, and then those still surviving are engulfed by the Red Sea. Absolutely no sympathy is shown them at all. Some of the choir at the interval looked as if they too were only just holding their heads above water. Their own personal Canaan was a long way off, though the exhaustion never showed in their singing.

It was not until after the interval that Handel decided to give the choir any respite. We were transported to Vivaldi’s Venice (Handel style) as we enjoyed a delightful soprano duet sung by two of Mr Perrin’s pupils. The clear, silvery tone of Verity Wingate was a good foil for the more mature sounds of Johanna Harrison. It was a pleasure to hear such young voices.

While Egyptians are engulfed and choristers gasp, soloists suffer from neglect. They hardly get a chance in this piece. Nevertheless we had forceful, suitably warlike singing from the bass duet Simon Trist and Julian Rippon - before Handel forgot about them entirely. The tenor David Webb has a fine tone and we also enjoyed the lyrical alto singing of Caroline Lowe - though the acoustic and Handel’s sometimes excessive pitch requirements conspired to defeat some of her lower notes.

The choir relished the extraordinary biblical words. There can’t be many chorus movements which end on the word ‘stubble’- a very dramatic ending it was too! I’m sure 18th Century audiences knew their ‘blotches and blains’ - all we can be certain of is that the Egyptians didn’t like them much. The well blended choir sang in tune and was alive to the possibilities of dynamic contrast. Just occasionally some of the singers, especially the basses, seemed to want to break away from the conductor’s grip, but were soon hauled back into the fold. Sometimes a more incisive vocal attack could have brought an even stronger sense of drama. At its best, as in the remarkably sweet chorus He led them forth like sheep, the choir was magnificent. A memorable evening!