George Frideric Handel’s great oratorio Israel in Egypt, HWV 54, was composed in 1739, but it never in his lifetime received the adulation showered on Messiah, of two years later. In fact the coolness that greeted its premiere led Handel to remove Part I of the three-part piece entirely — an amputation unique in Handel’s career. Nowadays, as in the Back Bay Chorale’s performance on Saturday evening at Sanders Theatre, the huge majority of performances use the two-part version. This would seem to be Handel’s ultimate intention, since the original Part I had a prior existence (1737) as a funeral anthem on the death of Queen Caroline and was grafted onto the oratorio with minor adaptations. Another factor in Israel in Egypt’s unenthusiastic reception was probably that it was an overwhelmingly choral work — 30 choruses as against four arias and three duets — and Handel’s audiences were largely opera lovers yearning for arias sung by virtuoso soloists. A century after Handel, however, the Victorians “rediscovered” the work, and since then it is generally agreed to be his second most popular oratorio.
The orchestral prelude opens with a majestic French overture which is followed by a fugal section and finishes with a return to the opening material. Scott Allen Jarrett and his excellent orchestra generated considerable electricity with the precise snap of their double-dotted rhythms
Part the First, “Exodus,” begins with the tenor’s narrative recitative. Matthew Anderson sang of the oppressive new pharaoh with portent and clear enunciation. This led into an alto solo combined with chorus And the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage. The soloist, falsettist Brad Fugate, began his opening phrase slightly unsteadily but quickly regained his footing and sang the remainder of his solo with plangent expressiveness that was then echoed by the chorus.
The tenor’s second recitative introduces a sequence of “plague” choruses, the most famous of which is “He spake the word and there came all manner of flies and lice,” followed by “locusts without number” devouring all fruits and vegetables. The chorus contrasts effectively the grand (“He spake the word”) with the minuscule but insistent (“and there came all manner of flies”), but here the orchestra steals the show with its vivid illustration of swarming bugs. The upper strings play whizzing 32nd-note runs up, down and all around; when the locusts arrive, the lower strings and winds join in the “fun” with 16th-notes jumping all over the place, grasshopper-style. If the upper strings’ ensemble wasn’t absolutely perfect (one wonders if such is even possible), it certainly evoked a clear picture in the mind’s eye.
In the hailstones-and-fire chorus, the orchestra starts with a few isolated raindrops of sound which soon pick up speed and force until the chorus enters with pounding chords. Here was a particularly fine opportunity for forceful consonants which, regrettably, was not taken. Generally speaking, the enunciation of the Chorale was weakest in moments of rhythmic unison; naturally, in fugal passages with their individual vocal part entries words were more comprehensible. Overall, more emphasis on interior and final consonants, in stage diction style, would be salutary for the BBC’s future performances.
The succeeding chorus about “a thick darkness over the land,” so thick as to be tangible, was again almost pictorial, using slow tempo, thick orchestration, and unpredictable, chromatic chord progressions. This well conveyed the feeling of oppression but was also the only noticeable place in the performance where the chorus’s intonation went below the mark momentarily.
When all the plagues have finished, there comes another majestic statement, “He rebuked the Red Sea,” followed by the a cappella, hushed awe of “… and it was dried up.” In “But the waters overwhelmed their enemies,” the booming timpani and turbulent billowing figures of the strings announced the pursuing Egyptians’ doom when the Red Sea surged back. Surely Felix Mendelssohn had this piece in mind when writing “Thanks be to God, He laveth the thirsty land in Elijah.” The Back Bay Chorale and Orchestra gave a thrilling rendition.
Part the Second, Moses’ Song,” instead of continuing the narrative from the first part, is a giant paean to God from Moses and his followers. In fact, the first 10 numbers of the second part essentially recapitulate repeatedly the miracle of their escape through the Red Sea and the destruction of their pursuers.
The first chorus, the most famous in the oratorio, is “Moses and the children of Israel sung this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying: I will sing unto the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.” The last bit of text inspired Handel to write one of the most exciting pieces in his oeuvre, using quite simple means: rising sequences and a relentless anapestic rhythm. Dr. Jarrett, chorus, and orchestra took it at a fiery tempo while maintaining excellent ensemble, and the result was spine-tingling.
The two sopranos, Teresa Wakim and Brenna Wells, provided a beautiful duet in “The Lord is my strength and my song”; their voices wonderfully matched and blending exceptionally well. The baritone-bass duet “The Lord is a man of war” supplied musical and textual contrast with James Demler and Graham T. Wright exchanging blustering runs in alternation with testosterone-charged dotted rhythms. And finally, after two-thirds of the oratorio has elapsed, the patient tenor gets his first full aria, “The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake.” This display piece features much “obsessive” coloratura to illustrate the Egyptians’ foolhardy but relentless pursuit. Matthew Anderson showed his gift for this type of brilliant writing. This leads inevitably into the soprano aria “Thou didst blow with the wind, the sea covered them; they sank as lead in the mighty waters.” Handel evokes the blowing wind by accompanying the singer (Ms. Wakim) almost entirely with wind instruments; both singer and orchestra are confronted with near-endless runs, a stern challenge of breath control for all, which was impressively met. Ms. Wakim also demonstrated a notable mastery of coloratura. And finally, the alto gets his second aria, “Thou shalt bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of Thine inheritance,” a piece characterized by lengthy melismas with flourishes. Mr. Fugate again showed his affinity for this style of vocalism though his enunciation was not ideally clear.
A brief chorus follows, “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever,” with sustained choral lines contrasting with the galloping anapestic rhythms of the orchestra. Then, as if to bookend the entire oratorio, the tenor has another pair of narrative recitatives, separated by a repetition of the preceding chorus. The second recitative introduces Miriam the prophetess whose nobly sung solo, “Sing ye to the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously” led straight into the final chorus, the return of “The horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea” which opened Part the Second. After a major work with a preponderance of choruses, one might forgive singers a touch of fatigue, but the BBC showed not a hint of it. The fiery tempo, relentless rhythm, and excellent ensemble were just as exciting the second time around. This is the type of piece and performance that one hopes will win new listeners for choral music.