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H+H Shines in Handel’s Oratorio of Deliverance


Handel’s Israel in Egypt occupies an important place in the early history of the Handel and Haydn Society, having been excerpted in the inaugural concert in 1815 and never having been long out of the Society’s repertoire. Jonathan Cohen reportedly programmed his debut concert as artistic director with a view to placing Israel in Egypt within the wider history of the Society, and, for that, it accomplished its job. A capacity audience at Symphony Hall Friday night seemed primed for the triumphal theatrics, but in the morning’s light, with war in the Middle East once again on everyone’s minds, some introspection is warranted. One wonders whether there will be some announcement before Sunday afternoon’s repeat performance.

He guided the ensemble with reasonably effective gestures, sometimes conducting with his head while playing the harpsichord. He invariably stood and gestured vigorously for the choruses, but the placement of the harpsichord in front of him limited his range on the stage. He used both hands well, but his movements were often limited to a clear tactus in the right hand with some mirroring in the left. Few motions appeared to guide the shaping of orchestral lines; he left the soloists appropriately to their own devices, but the players seemed to listen. He gave clear entrances to the first voice in a fugal texture, but on more than one occasion subsequent voices missed their entrances for lack of cueing. His strongest cue came as ‘the sniff’ which was audible to the audience.

Balance issues at times burdened the proceedings such as in the frogs’ plague, which facile countertenor Douglas Dodson depicted rather flippantly. Yea, even in the king’s chambers, many of the oratorio’s most colorful moments felt stage-bound and came across in dull relief; we wanted more dramatic sonorities. Cellos and double basses had no difficulty projecting sensitively through the choir’s transparent texture, but the higher strings became lost, especially towards the back of the section. The long slurs over 32nd-note runs in the first violins for “there came all manner of flies” rendered the line light and diffuse, though they might have made up for this with the gritty staccatos in “He smote all the first-born of Egypt.” Dynamically, their level worked well enough for solo and duet arias, but I came away with the impression that the balance must have seemed far better from center stage than it did in the house. Could the upper strings have dug in more?

The wind and brass players acquitted themselves marvelously, whether in Debra Nagy’s (oboe) and Steven Marquardt’s (trumpet) sublime duet through “To God, our strength” or during the superb wind parts in the chorus “He spake the word.” The opening of “He sent a thick darkness” nearly took my breath away. The mixture of double reeds and low strings produced an incredibly dark sound, even darkness which might be felt. Fellow reviewer Mark DeVoto has analyzed the amazing number thus:

These measures in Handel’s darkness” involve deceptive cadences, with dominant-seventh harmony in which one voice moves chromatically to a diminished seventh chord or vice versa; the diminished seventh chord is flexible because it can resolve to any of four different distantly-related tonics. In this passage, the implied keys are actually fairly close to each other: C minor, A-flat major, F minor, E-flat major, though eventually resolving in E minor (which is close to C major, but distant from F minor or E-flat major) at the end of the passage. Bach, Mozart, and Chopin all offer similar examples of what I call “chromatic creeping” that are much more striking harmonically than this “darkness,” which is dark because of soft, quiet, slow choral texture with not much active counterpoint. (I remember from Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” that the Dresden Museum has a porcelain jar that is supposed to contain the original Egyptian darkness but have not investigated.) Anyone who wants a fuller explanation of what I’ve said above might wish to look at a somewhat technical article, “Alban Berg and Creeping Chromaticism, on my website [HERE], to see how Berg’s scores carry the idea to extreme extremes.

Jonathan Cohen leads violinist Christina Day Martinson and the H+H Orchestra (Robert Torres photos)

Ian Watson’s organ continuo masterfully enhanced many passages. The organ has a special place in Handel’s music and can sustain and support singing far more effectively than a harpsichord. The Society’s sweet cabinet instrument blended the strings and winds together in certain passages to create a texture akin to viol consort music: as transparent as a candle’s scent but as intense as its flame. However, my eyes often wandered up to the gilded pipes stoically perched above the stage. Though adequate at times, H+H’s box organ was easily dwarfed several times over by the orchestra and choir. The dainty little flute stop cannot substitute for the 8’ open diapason Handel had on his chamber organ (not to mention the brilliance obtainable from its complete principal chorus). The Symphony Hall Hutchings-Æolian Skinner-Foley Baker has the broadness to support the ensemble with soft color stops suited to quiet moments and strong fundamentals to enhance the tuttis. [Its part could be transposed down a half step so that its A would sound at Baroque pitch] Isn’t this worth an experiment in the bigger choruses? I assume they will use it for the ad libitum organ part when they play the Brahms Requiem in April. [more on Handel’s organs HERE]

In every one of its 20-some numbers the H+H Chorus engaged in colorful storytelling, carrying the narrative forward with wonderfully shaped lines expressing the meaning of the text. Their fervent tone in “He spake the word” and “He smote all the first-born of Egypt” became solemn and grim in “He sent a thick darkness.” The only actually a capella line, “and it was dried up,” sounded like a whisper but conveyed a powerful message. Through all of this, their articulation communicated the words so clearly that I scarcely had to look at the libretto in the program!

Several of the excellent professional choral singers stepped out as individual Israelites. Mezzo-soprano Katherine Growdon gave intensely moving voice to “The Children of Israel Sighed.” Soprano Sonja Dutoit Tengblad sang with a decidedly later aesthetic than some of the other soloists; her style also rewarded Handel’s invitation for displays of the beauty of the human voice. Hers proved to be the most enjoyable cadenza with glistening high notes and the correct use of chromatic pitches. Soon after having delivered “Tossed from thought to thought” with fiery introspection from the apron, she commanded all ears and hearts as she intoned “Sing ye to the Lord for he hath triumphed gloriously” from the back of the stage. In the moment, we fervently believed every word of the magnificent trumpets and drums choral affirmation, “The Lord shall reign forever and ever.”

A musicology PhD student at Boston University, Christopher Hodges earned a M.M. in organ performance with Peter Sykes.
The H+H-Orchestra and Chorus (Robert Torres photos)


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I greatly enjoyed the program. I assume that all the critical points made by the reviewer will be seconded by expert musicians and theorists, particularly conductors. I recently watched a documentary in which 16 of the most famous conductors were compared. Each of them had a different style. I have never seen a long quote from another academician in a review. I have had a subscription for many years, and I have heard dozens of choral works. The performance on Friday evening was as good as most of them, IMHO. I would have mentioned a couple of things if I were to write a review for the general public; the orchestra was not in formal wear, which I had never seen before. It is becoming quite common. It was not a capacity audience by any stretch. I could only observe from the back of the hall, but there were many listeners cleverly disguised as chairs. On the other hand, there were many more folks under 30 years of age. They all seemed to enjoy it immensely. I was a bit surprised that no one spoke at the start of the concert basically introducing the new music director to us. This was his first “offical” performance. I would have loved to hear him say a few words.

    Comment by Rich Carle — October 8, 2023 at 11:48 am

  2. I attended the Sunday matinee – there was no reference made to the sad events in Israel. Mr. Hodges’ points are all spot on. I would add that the balance between choir and orchestra was often awry, with the choral basses and (especially) tenors predominating and the upper strings disappearing almost entirely. And while it’s always nice to have the soloists ‘step out’ from the choir the quality can be quite uneven. Symphony Hall is a grand enough space to warrant having solo voices of more heft than can be reasonably expected from folks who are primarily choral singers. More expensive, to be sure!

    Comment by Mark Dirksen — October 9, 2023 at 7:21 pm

  3. MORE NOTES ON THE PREMIERE (originally written for the Berkshire Choral Festival)
    The first performance of Israel in Egypt took place on April 4, 1739 at the privately owned London’s King’s Theatre. The theatre was built in the Haymarket in 1705 and became a center for opera, providing the first alternative to the two official patent theaters. Although this building burned in 1789 and has been replaced three times, the site is the second oldest in London to be dedicated to musical performance. Between 1711 and 1739, more than two dozen operas by Handel were premiered at the King’s Theatre; his oratorio Saul, with a libretto by Charles Jennens, had just been presented since a lack of subscribers had caused the cancellation of the 1738-1739 opera season.

    London audiences at that time were not used to such extensive choral pieces presented as commercial entertainment, but British choral singers were among the best trained musicians in England. The opening funeral dirge (The Sons of Israel Do Mourn), was adapted from the composer’s earlier anthem on the death of Princess Caroline the year before (The Ways of Zion Do Mourn), and its length contributed to the work’s initial failure. Handel quickly revised the work, cutting the opening music and adding many more arias for the soloists.

    Handel worked exclusively with choirs of boys and men, preferring professional male singers from cathedrals and the Chapel Royal over opera singers whenever the Bishop of London allowed (they were forbidden to “act, even with books”). Handel employed two female sopranos and a male alto at the premiere.

    A Note on the English Text
    This English oratorio, based on Exodus and the Psalter, contains some odd rhymes and demonstrates the different sounds of eighteenth-century English that Handel encountered. Certain words have changed: if you were present at the premiere, you might have heard the following: “Ah’m excited to hear this nyoo musical dray-ma, and listen to air-ias (instead of arias) from the bal-CO-ney.” One reviewer complained that when Philharmonia Baroque recorded Judas one of the singers didn’t make “hands” and “commands” a full rhyme, but in eighteenth-century England they weren’t.

    On the other hand, there hasn’t been a standard English pronunciation until this century. If you had a regional accent you kept it. And beyond that, half of the oratorios, although written in English, were not sung entirely in it. Sometimes oratorio arias were sung in Italian, because the singers were Italian. And even when the Italians sang in English, one critic reported, “I thought they were singing in Hebrew.” The most famous story is about the revival of Esther, where an Italian singer made “I come, my queen, to chaste delights” sound like “I comb my queen to chase the lice.” And there were foreign singers in almost all the oratorios right up to Handel’s death. It’s a nice argument against too much emphasis on authenticity.

    Comment by Laura Prichard — October 16, 2023 at 10:55 pm

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