Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Handel Israel in Eygpt William Christie Prom

Handel's Israel in Egypt with William Christie and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, a performance space big enough to create the sense of occasion that made the oratorio a favourite with 19th century audiences.  The first recording, made at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1888 with 4000 voices, is hard to listen to, but even with modern technology one wonders what a chorus of thousands would have sounded like  in the circumstances.  Fortunately, modern performance practice emphasizes quality, not quantity. William Christie and the Orchestra of the Age oif Enlightenment are Handel specialists par excellence.  Even by their high standards this was wonderful. Period inspired practice highlights the music itself, illuminated and remade anew. This performance seemed to glow, the voices ringing pure and clean, the orchestra alert and alive.

Sombre, regular drum rolls "raise the curtain" to the drama,f or Israel in Egypt is a drama, despite the Biblical context.  The choral writing in the First Part unfolds like a grand procession: note the phrases in the text, repeated in succession, suggesting massed forces. No need for a cast of thousands: Handel's already written panorama into his score.With the Choir of the Age of Enlightenmnet, we can hear the individual voices in the crowd. An important consideration, since much of the beauty of the piece depends on the blending of voices,and patterns in the musical line. When the chorus then explodes in uniso -  "Come ! Come!"-  the effect is highly charged.  When the clear, piping solo voice emerges from the tumult, it's extraordinarily moving. The voice is pure, yet vulnerable, like the young, isolated Joseph, perhaps, and the spirit of the people of Israel, in exile, yet uncowed.  When the chorus returns, a single horn is heard, unaccompanied. Again, the beauty and validity of period instrumentation.

If Part 1 is a deeply felt, personal Requiem, Parts 2 and 3 are, as William Christie says in the interval broadcast, "Hollywood. We're essentially creating a vast fresco of plagues, and also the extraordinary exit of the Jews from Egypt. So it's a travelogue, as big as anything Cecil B De Mille could have created."   The second part begins with a recitative, the tenor Jeremy Budd describing the new, brutal Pharaoh who "turned the waters into blood", that last word pronounced with theatrical emphasis.  Then the aria for counter tenor, Christopher Lowrey: "blotches and plagues, on all man and beast". Florid decorative lines, gruesome subject.   Zingy, zig zag lines from the strings, underpinned by timpani and brass, vividly evoking magnificent forces.  Another sudden switch: the choir sing in hushed tones.  Darkness falls on the land: high male voices contrast with low basses.  The zig zags become ostinato, the voices matching forcefully.  A soprano enters, strings dancing around her. This extended lyrical interlude suggests that, despite the violence surrounding, purity will triumph.  The parting of the waves of the Red Sea, no less, even now in the age of cinema and computer-aided design not an easy task to achieve,  And Handel does it with sound. Vigorous playing from the OAE, and technicolor singing, gently fading into serenity.

Israel has now escaped Egypt: Part 3 is celebration. "The Lord is my Saviour" sang  the sopranos (Zoë Brookshaw and Rowan Pierce), the first of a series of lovely set pieces followed by an extended  trio of male voices (Jeremy Budd, Dingle Yandell and Callum Thorpe). In the choral passages, the balance between male and female voices was particularly impressive, the temporary hush broken by blinding light of the second section, which then elides into finely parted cells where single voices intertwined, itself followed by an energetically rhythmic sequence in which each different voice group sings in unison, garlanded around each other.  Christopher Lowrey's solo aria stood out.  Passages decorated by flurries displaying technique need to be kept clear like this.  Part of the beauty of baroque style is fluidity and translucent clarity of line. The use or non-use of vibrato s in itself a red herring, seized upon by those who don't get the aesthetics of style.  Again, the waters of the sea part and the miracle is recalled in recitative, the striking song of the soprano and the heady excitement whipped up by choir and orchestra,  Gosh, I love the sound of period percussion, so earthy and "human".  And so Israel and Egypt ends as it begins, with drums: the three parts, each so distinctive, are inextricably united.

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