Israel in Egypt
Recorded and released in 1993.
Edited and reissued in 2002.
Nicola Jenkin, soprano
Caroline Trevor, alto
Neil MacKenzie, tenor
Robert Evans, bass
Simon Birchall, bass
The Symphony of Harmony and Invention (on period instruments)
Conductor: Harry Christophers
Harry Christophers provides a new foreword for The Sixteen’s reissue of Israel in Egypt, in which he writes “Handel’s work vividly portrays the story of the plagues, the tribulations of a captive tribe and finally celebrates the deliverance of the chosen people. It is quite simply a grand choral spectacular and, undoubtedly, the ideal work to celebrate The Sixteen’s 25th anniversary.”
This is indeed so, but keen Handel collectors will have noticed that The Sixteen’s complete recording of Handel’s first 1738 version of Israel in Egypt has already been reissued by the budget label Regis (including its subsequently abandoned first part adapted from the funeral anthem “The Ways of Zion do Mourn”). This was done following the demise of Collins Classics, and without the authority of The Sixteen, who were disappointed by Regis’s poor quality and scantily documented product.
Eagle-eyed collectors will also notice that this Israel in Egypt is contained on only one disc, but the complete work – even in its truncated form including only Parts 2 and 3 – cannot fit on to less than two. The original recording has obviously been cut down for its new lease of life on the Coro label. One suspects that the reasoning behind The Sixteen’s lavishly packaged independent reissue was largely practical: the expense of producing a double disc reissue with content already exactly duplicated by an undesirable budget issue already flooding the market must have been an untenable situation.
Yet The Sixteen’s solution to this problem is a masterstroke: it is claimed that this edited single disc version is based on Randall’s 1771 edition of Israel in Egypt. Randall’s publication was the first printed edition of Handel’s oratorio, as it had only been hitherto circulated in manuscript. It is difficult to be sure exactly how precisely this rearranged recording corresponds to Randall’s publication, but it is certain that Randall omitted several arias and some short choruses, and Anthony Hicks’s revised booklet essay illuminates several details. Handel’s original 1738 tripartite scheme is an overlong and uneven experience apart from its honourable highlights in ‘Exodus’, all of which are included on this concise version.
I personally do not regret the loss of the removed music too much (although Christophers wisely retains the fine chorus “The people shall hear” that Randall omitted). Lest we forget, Israel in Egypt was a failure in Handel’s lifetime, and its star only ascended after the posthumous increase of his reputation as a choral composer. It is refreshing how well Randall’s concise version works: it is never long-winded, communicates directly, presents a well-paced narration, and moves effortlessly from one fantastic musical moment to another.
In short, this ‘1771’ version – unlike conventional ‘highlights’ discs in general - reveals what a theatrical and musical masterpiece Israel in Egypt is without its padding and superfluous arias. Thus the primary interest of the conversion of The Sixteen’s old recording into this compact and accessible version is its rewarding insight into how Handel’s music was received a little more than a decade after his death, although the compressed reissue also benefits The Sixteen. The weak soloists and hints of fatigue that slightly marred the complete recording do not show in this ‘Randall’ version, making Christophers’s performance seem more vivid and exciting than it originally really was. Unlike the Collins/Regis version, this Coro reissue is the ideal introduction to Handel’s masterpiece that presents an oratorio to be enjoyed rather than revered.
© David Vickers - April 2003
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