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.
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.”