Israel in Egypt
EMI Reflexe 7 54018-2
Recorded in 1989
Released in 1990
Virgin Veritas 5 61350-2
Reissued in 1996
Virgin Veritas 5 62155-2
Reissued in 2003.
Nancy Argenta, soprano
Emily Van Evera, soprano
Timothy Wilson, alto
Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor
David Thomas, bass
Jeremy White, bass
The Taverner Choir
The Taverner Players (on period instruments)
Director: Andrew Parrott
Although others will certainly have their own opinion, I believe that Andrew Parrott’s magnificent recording of Israel in Egypt is the finest recording of any Handel choral work yet made. The Taverner Choir is magnificent, and produces a performance that remains the absolute benchmark for its colleagues. Even The Monteverdi Choir and The Sixteen do not often come close to this: choral textures are gorgeously transparent, fugues are blessedly agile yet expressively sustained, and Handel’s grandest and most immense choruses are given impressive precision and poise, and, when required, overwhelming power.
The flexibility and refinement of The Taverner Players is also marvellous. Parrott’s own peerless pacing of Handel’s mammoth score must also be highly commended. This performance is highly charged yet it contains no garish gimmicks or emotional inadequacies: dynamism and tastefulness are mingled together to stunning effect. Parrott’s phrasing and shaping of the music reveals his keen awareness of rhetorical and refreshing elements in repertoire that can often descend into bombast. It is a triumphant vindication of a subtle musical approach to an oratorio that admittedly is not an obvious candidate for Handel’s most subtle composition.
Parrott demonstrates plenty of style and historical awareness. Indeed, no other conductor since Parrott’s lamentable disappearance from the recording business has matched his ability to fuse genuine first-rate scholarship with fine intuitive musicianship. For example, Parrott was the first to record Handel’s first 1738 version of Israel in Egypt complete, including its subsequently abandoned first part “The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph”. This was made out of the anthem “The Ways of Zion do Mourn” originally composed for the Funeral of Queen Caroline in 1737. This scheme makes for a very long and predominantly choral evening, and perhaps Israel in Egypt speaks as a more theatrical experience when performed in its shorter two-part scheme. Yet when technical quality is married so happily to interpretive intelligence, as it is here, then issues of structure and balance are rendered submissive. Although Harry Christophers and Stephen Cleobury have both since recorded this three-part scheme of Israel in Egypt, their respective achievements were less impressive.
There can be few meaningful criticisms of this reissued recording. While it is unlikely that Handel used solo voices at all in either the original Funeral anthem or its oratorio offspring, Parrott’s use of them here does not rankle. Occasionally moderate tempos can seem a touch too moderate, but the performance is so beautifully shaded that this no great hardship to bear. The soloists demonstrate a good awareness of style and the text, and, although they may not make a huge impact, that is largely Handel’s responsibility. Indeed, the oratorio’s relative failure during Handel’s own lifetime is often ascribed to its choral predominance, although this ironically brought about its popular revival in Victorian times.
Yet in good hands it becomes clear why Israel in Egypt is Handel’s supreme choral epic. In “Exodus” The Taverner Choir shine in a magnificent and alert “He spake the word”; “He gave them hailstones for rain” is fearsome with its vibrant orchestration, and its searing double-choir exclamations is far removed from the Oxbridge sound. Likewise, the deathblows of the orchestral stabbing in the coda of “He smote all the first-born of Egypt” raise an involuntary shudder. How many of the musical ideas in Israel in Egypt are actually composed by Handel is irrelevant: if you want to hear the modern English school of Handel choral singing at its utmost pinnacle, and appreciate Handel’s devastating yet economical manipulation of large forces, the celebratory conclusion to “Moses’ Song” is a veritable masterclass. Parrott’s recording remains seminal and quintessential.
© David Vickers - February 2003
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