Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Israel in Egypt" performed by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra under David Stern

“Israel in Egypt” (1738) is the fifth of 19 oratorios that Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed in England. Written in 27 days, it was premiered in 1739 at the King’s Theatre, where Handel was manager at the time. The first performance was not received well: the London audience was confused at hearing a sacred work in the theatre and would have preferred more vocal solos and fewer choral movements. “Israel in Egypt” was only performed nine times in Handel’s lifetime and, despite its splendour, was considered a failure at the time. The composer made several changes, his 1756 version being that which we heard in the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s “Great Vocal Series” concert no. 5 April 7th 2011 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. In a slightly abbreviated version conducted by Maestro David Stern (director of the Israeli Opera), the chorus (mostly double choir) was made up of The New Vocal Ensemble and The Kibbutz Artzi Choir (Yuval Ben Ozer, conductor). Soloists – all local talent - were sopranos Claire Megnaghi and Avigail Gurtler, countertenor Alon Harari, tenor Nimrod Grinboim, baritone Yair Polishook and bass Amit Friedman.

Essentially a choral oratorio using texts from the Bible (the Book of Exodus and Psalms) “Israel in Egypt”, out-of-the-ordinary in its lack of overture, consists mostly of massive double choruses. The two choirs gave their all to the complex musical detail, the many-faceted counterpoint, the dramatic development of the work and to the nuances of its emotional roller-coaster ride. The English text, so pertinent in this work, was given attention and lucidity. The singers followed Stern’s articulate conducting, their collaboration resulting in precision and clean phrasing.

Tenor Nimrod Grinboim, a charismatic artist with a fine sense of the stage, set the scene, his manner forthright, his English articulate:
‘Now there arose a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph; and he set over Israel taskmasters to afflict them with burdens, and they made them serve with rigour.’ (Exodus 1:8, 11:13.) Countertenor Alon Harari, continuing the narrative, was outstanding in his expressiveness and sincerity, his voice distinctive and mellifluous. In “Their land brought frogs…” his “reading of the text” became dramatic, fired by consonants and enriched with fine melismas and ornaments. In the duet “Thou and Thy mercy”, Grinboim and Harari blend and balance in a delightful mix of timbres and shapes. In the bright and cantabile soprano duet “The Lord is my strength and my song”, its minimal instrumental accompaniment, offering the stage to Claire Meghnagi and Avigail Gurtler, the vocal combination was pleasing; however, Meghnagi needs to take into account Gurtler’s less expansive voice. Meghnagi has much musical personality, her solos compelling; issuing in the final chorus with two startling unaccompanied phrases, her singing had listeners sitting on the edge of their seats. Opening with Yair Polishook’s dramatic statement, he and Amit Friedman provided a fresh, virile and exhilarating performance of “The Lord is a man of war”.

David Stern wielded Handel’s massive score with composure and consummate skill, the JSO players painting the buzzing of flies, lice and locusts, the hopping of frogs, the pelting of hailstones and rain and fire onto Handel’s technicolor canvas.

Description of the above plagues was followed by the spine-chillingly eerie chorus “He sent a thick darkness over the land”, the latter chorus graced by mellow and empathic playing on the part of the JSO’s woodwind section. Stern’s performance set before the audience the Israelites’ despair which turns to gloom, the savage smiting of the first born - effectively chiseled in detached notes - followed by and contrasted by the idyllic and pastoral silver-and-gold threaded comfort of “But as for His people, He led them forth like sheep”. The work then evokes the raging waters engulfing and drowning Pharaoh’s men and horses, these texts inspiring Handel to create some of the most vivid, visual and dramatic moments in Baroque music, the energy and power of the situation being reflected in the complexity of the music. Throughout the work, we are constantly reminded of the power of the sea:
‘And with the blast of Thy nostrils the waters were gathered together, the floods stood upright as in a heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea.’ (Exodus xv: 8.)
Majestic triumph ensues, then celebration and dancing; Alon Harari’s tranquilly beautiful rendition of “Thou shalt bring them in and plant them in the mountain of Thine inheritance” provides relief, respite and reassurance, its message especially relevant in a performance in Israel! Stern, the opera conductor, and his fellow musicians give audience members their money’s worth of excitement! Not to be ignored, however, are the choruses which poignantly punctuate the drama with hymns of conviction and devotion, strategically placed, their cantabile textures caressing and soothing.

Not performed on authentic instruments, Maestro Stern nevertheless addresses the Baroque style of the work. The orchestra was at its best. This was surely one of the JSO’s finest and most enjoyable concerts of the season.

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