Handel: Israel in Egypt (1739 version)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Israel in Egypt (1739 version)
PERFORMER: Susan Gritton, Libby Crabtree (soprano), Michael Chance, Robert Ogden (countertenor), Ian Bostridge (tenor), Stephen Varcoe, Henry Herford (bass); Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Brandenburg Consort/Stephen Cleobury
CATALOGUE NO: 452 295-2
Israel in Egypt is Handel’s strangest oratorio, both a splendid choral epic and a badly flawed drama. Composed in 1738, it seems likely Handel conceived the work as a way of preserving the magnificent anthem The ways of Zion do mourn, which he’d composed for Queen Caroline’s funeral in 1737, and which, with minimal alteration, became the oratorio’s first act. Ironically, after Israel proved a commercial flop (theatre audiences were doubtless bemused by a grand-scale choral work that had few solo arias and no real plot), Handel revived it minus the opening anthem, and this truncated version later enjoyed huge popularity with Victorian choral societies. Only recently, in recordings by period-practitioners like Harry Christophers and Andrew Parrott, has Israel in Egypt been restored to its original three-part form. (Controversially so, because, as Anthony Hicks has noted, the funeral anthem’s elegiac gravity sits uneasily with the more rousing, colourful music of Parts 2 and 3.)

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Stephen Cleobury’s 1995 recording, made in King’s College Chapel, typifies the English church tradition, with its technical assurance, pure treble sound and a sense of restraint that’s most noticeable here in a very understated ‘Thou shalt bring them in’. This cool approach may not be the most appropriate for Handelian drama, but rather more problematic is the reverberant, ‘churchy’ acoustic, which gives the sound a weightless quality that dilutes its clarity and impact. Andrew Parrott’s mid-price 1989 performance is not only more dramatically expressive but, with sharply focused sound, also brighter and altogether more engaging. Graham Lock