thu 25/07/2024

Handel's Israel in Egypt, Cadogan Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Handel's Israel in Egypt, Cadogan Hall

Handel's Israel in Egypt, Cadogan Hall

Gardiner pleas for salvation

One after the other came their pleas. “Save us!” they cried, “Save us, or we will be no more!” Not the words of the enslaved Israelites of Handel’s oratorio, however, but the sentiments of the English Baroque Soloists, the Monteverdi Choir and their supporters during their pre-concert supplications. Never has the plea of a fundraising concert chimed so well with the thrust of the music.

Moments after Sir John Eliot Gardiner - then Sir David Attenborough - had begged the crowd of sponsors to empty their pockets for the musicians, the choir of Israelites struck up their own prayers to their benefactor in the skies.

Indeed, so convincing were the little talks before the two halves of the concert that I came to think that they might be incorporated into the oratorio permanently, as rediscovered recitative. But then, this is an oratorio that really doesn’t need any more desperate, pleading talk. The work hits the pits of despair early on, meanders through the hair-raising plagues of Exodus in graphic style, and then only ten minutes from the end explodes into redemptive jubilation.

In some ways it is the Spielbergian blockbuster of Handel’s oratorios, with its manipulative nihilism, vivid effects and over-the-top evangelical salvation. It perhaps explains why it was such a flop at its 1739 premiere. If you were looking for edification – which is what a night out at an oratorio was all about – Israel in Egypt was not going to offer it.

It offers other things though: piercing choral numbers that seem to swim and stab, firecracker-like brass explosions – the work boasts an unprecedented three trombonists, two trumpeters and a timpanist - moments of intense, impregnable darkness, and ridiculously well-evoked programme music for each of the plagues. Gardiner pushed the choir and orchestra down into the depths, hitting the phrase “by thy greatness” in the chorus, The people shall hear, and be afraid, with an almighty crunch that rattled the bones.

The small size of the hall helped the singing to ring through one’s body, as did the quality of the choir, which was powerful and passionate, and even when it was at its softest never failed to hit you between the eyes. Their solo turns, too, were exemplary: unaffected, unassuming and perfectly in tune to the intentions behind these arias, which is to represent the ordinary man.

There’s a lot of talk of fear in this work: an anticipation of what it might be to fear and an at times shocking realisation of what it is to face fear. Fear too in the faces of the conductor Gardiner in his impassioned talk to the audience. But with the appearance of Zoe Brown and her supremely graceful soprano voice in a repeat of the triumphant finale – one of Handel’s most glorious – as an encore, the applause and good cheer, and the healthy sound of coins hitting the bottoms of collection cans, seemed to drive the pessimism away.

  • Sir John Eliot Gardiner is on tour with the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir. They perform Israel in Egypt next on Sunday in Bonn, Germany, then next Tuesday in Pisa, Italy.

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