Handel wrote so many oratorios on Jewish subjects, including Solomon, Esther, Joseph, Saul, Judas Maccabeus, that one could even consider accepting his exceedingly pleasing and popular Israel in Egypt as a partial reparation to the Jewish people for 500 years of slavery in Egypt. Of course, referring to Israel in Egypt as “pleasing” accepts its celebration of violence and God’s wrath against the Egyptians (we know that Handel is taking God’s words in Exodus for it); a trigger warning is probably warranted. In the vivid show, God takes great pleasure in plaguing, smiting, and drowning the Israelites’ enemies, and listeners can very much enjoy Handel’s superb word painting. The strings’ swirling swarms of 32nd-note flies and lice tops the category.*
Presenters in our times usually omit the first part of the oratorio, “Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph,” as did Handel after 1739, when the work, with an unpopular 1/5 ratio of arias to choruses, failed to achieve success. But that elision would start the show too inwardly beginning in the reflective opening tenor recitative. Thus guest conductor Anthony Trecek-King employed the instrumental portion of the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline as an overture. A few conductors, most successfully John Elliot Gardiner, have begun with the original Joseph.
Friday night at Sanders the orchestra got underway very inauspiciously with loose ensemble and very shaky tuning. It seems they were virtually sight reading. Things got better immediately in Part 2. We have no complaints whatsoever about the subsequent execution on modern instruments, though some of the flies were badly smeared in double chorus no. 6.
To avoid overpowering the not-very loud soloists, Trecek-King often pared down the 34-piece orchestra for the arias. In no. 32, “Thou in Thy mercy…,” concertmaster Heather Braun and principal second violinist Rose Drucker plus the excellent continuo of cellist Guy Fishman, bass Robb Aistrup, and the elegantly fluent harpsichordist Ian Watson provided the delicacy of support needed to avoid covering the duet of the tremulous and childlike countertenor Matthew Shifrin, and the more clarion tenor Philippe L’Esperance. The top-drawer playing and singing in this number took us closest to HIP. Very plangent and poignant. “Thou shalt bring them in…,” number 34 brought the very instrumental sounding and very consoling Shifrin back, this time in com-any of 3-3 strings and continuo, ideally setting up the subsequent big chorus with tutti trumpets, trombone and timpani.
We also got one lovely duet from sopranos Jennifer Burks, and Mara Riley, (what well-matched vibrato and trills!) and another from the more contrasting basses Yihe Wang heldentenorish top) and Benedict Hensley (nicely rounded tones).
Here’s the buried lede: Ninety-voices strong, and broadly arrayed across the back of the stage, the Back Bay Chorale projecting powerfully, courageously, accurately, and conveying deep engagement, achieved tremendous victories over Handel’s challenges. From a foundation of well supported pianissimos, they rose to the powerful tuttis and executed the floridities of ornament and complexities of counterpoint in young-sounding tones. Notwithstanding some brief soprano shrieks (in moments of high drama) and lazy production of consonants, they gave great satisfaction.
We came to hear the loud hit numbers, of which there are so many, but gained equal pleasure from the more reflective sections. Trecek-King presided in poise, refinement, and apparent delight over the very well-received concert.
Some numbered high points:
All the plagues!!! The hailstones pounded us senseless, and the smitings struck us as downbow whipstrokes,
No. 8 “He sent a thick darkness…” ppp chorale entrance, gorgeous legato, chromatic surprises.
No 10 “Silver and gold” women and flutes.
No. 11 “Egypt was glad when they departed…” somber opening… solo cello made us feel sorry for Pharoah.
No. 12 “He rebuked the Red See,” the second chorus we came for, had wonderfully dramatic sfz pp alternations, ending in the astonished a cappella, “it was dried up.”
No. 13 “He led them through the deep…” rollicked in a grand double fugue across the wide stage.
No. 18 “I will sing unto the Lord …” the choir and orchestra handled the ornamentation without resort to a safe tempo.” Horse and rider He has thrown into the Sea” with trumpets and drums at speed perfectly depicted the DeMille extravaganza.
No. 21 “And I will exalt Him,” a Hebrew Credo in English convinced me of Handel’s religiosity. It vividly magnified the Lord.
No. 23 “The depths have covered them…” one could hear the heartbeats expire
No. 24 Organ led the Messiah-like Hallelujah without the H word, dashing the enemy to pieces
In the final double chorus BBC and orchestra joyfully and energetically posited that “The Lord Shall Reign Forever” while taking glee in drowning the Egyptian horses and riders in the sea (sing “rickety-tickety-tin”). Chorus and orchestra found something extra, putting the finale of this revenge drama across with noisy excitement.
Let’s look ahead 5,000 years. Who would write an oratorio celebrating the drowning of Jehovah’s people? Of course, we hope In sha’Allah that never happens.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer