Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Andrew Parrott directs the Israeli Vocal Ensemble and the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in Handel's "Israel in Egypt"

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (founder and conductor David Shemer) signed out of its 2013-2014 subscription series with a festive performance of G.F.Händel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt”. Conducted by the JBO’s honorary conductor Andrew Parrott (UK), the orchestra was joined by the Israeli Vocal Ensemble (music director Yuval Benozer) and soloists Hadas Faran-Asia, Taliya Dishon, Alon Harari, David Nortman and Yoav Weiss. This writer attended the performance on May 10th 2014 in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall, Jerusalem Theatre.

The fifth of the nineteen oratorios penned by Händel in England, “Israel in Egypt” was written in 1738, the composition of the whole colossal work taking a mere 27 days! It was originally a work in three acts, the first, now omitted, being an adaptation of the Funeral Anthem HWV 264, composed the previous year on the death of Queen Caroline. The texts of both original- and later versions were taken almost entirely from the Book of Exodus. The only additions are a few psalms. The eminently dramatic text, taken literally from the Bible, is set essentially as a choral oratorio, comprising 28 large double choruses linked together by a few bars of recitative, five arias and three duets. The dramatic aspect of the piece is achieved via a large repertoire of textures – cantus firmus themes with moving counter-melodies, antiphonal double choirs, thunderous choral homophony and a great many fugues. Atypical of Händel’s oratorios, “Israel in Egypt” has no overture; rather than unveiling a plot that is driven by individual passions, it presents and celebrates the story of a people. Moses and Miriam are mentioned in the text but the oratorio lacks any defined individual characters or conventional plot.

One of the earliest existing recordings of “Israel in Egypt”, a wax cylinder recording from 1888, was made at a performance at the Händel Festival at the Crystal Palace, London, with a choir 4000 strong!! The Israel Vocal Ensemble – numbering 12 singers in each choir, placed on either side of the orchestra – addressed the content of each event and emotion of the text with involvement, the singers’ vocal color, dynamic range and outstanding technique a dependant and determining factor, critical and decisive to the general outcome of the performance. The soloists also sang as part of the double choir. As to the soloists, kudos to tenor David Nortman, who contended well with both orchestra and the size of the Henry Crown Hall in singing that bristled with fine English diction, beauty of timbre, competence and a sense of comfort in the oratorio genre, Nortman valiantly taking on the role of the second bass with singer and oboist Yoav Weiss in “The Lord is a man of war”. Countertenor Alon Harari wielded the oratorio’s vivid text convincingly, creating a richly colored duet with Nortman in ”Thou in Thy mercy hast led forth thy people” and firing the dire message of his first solo with volatile consonants:
“Their land brought forth frogs, yea, even in their king’s chambers. He gave their cattle over to the pestilence; blotches and blains broke forth on man and beast.” (Psalm 105:30, Exodus 11:9,10). With the tempestuous events subsiding into the past, Harari expressed hope, warmth and tranquility in his final solo – "Thou shalt bring them in and plant them in the mountain of Thine inheritance…” - his delicate ornamentation taken up by the JBO strings. Sopranos Hadas Faran-Asia and Taliya Dishon fared less well, the timbral quality of two fine voices ill-matched in “The Lord is my strength and my song”. As to the soprano aria ”Thou didst blow with the wind”, joined by oboes and bassoons, singing without the score would have freed Faran-Asia to communicate more with orchestra and audience.

Maestro Parrott infused life and color to the many unique, almost visual ideas creating the rich canvas of the work – the evocation of the plagues, Händel’s humor in violin lines mimicking leaping frogs, in the majestic “He spake the word”, its text constantly interrupted by the buzzing and whirring sound of insects, then the brassy, stormy hailstorm with fire that “ran along upon the ground”, the savage blows and single, detached words of “He smote all the first-born” and the totally eerie, opaquely drawn chorus describing “a thick darkness over the land”, its small,saparate vocal utterances emerging here and there as lost people groping about in the gloom. And then the pastoral, illuminated serenity making up the soundscape of “But as for His people, He led them forth like sheep”. Opening the second part – “The Song of Moses” – Parrott launched straight into the brief, incisive orchestral prelude, the choir’s declaration that “Moses and the children sung this song” and the imposing fugued chorus “I will sing unto the Lord for He hath triumphed gloriously”. From here to the end, we are presented with concepts of strength, triumph and stately assertion, several of the allusions to strength being to that of the sea. Parrott created a somber, funereal all-too-real atmosphere of the drowned in “The depths have covered them”, then not soft-pedaling when it came to the bassy, merciless vocal effects in one of the oratorio’s most dramatic and horrific passages “And with the blast of Thy nostrils the waters were gathered together, the floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea.” With fine instrumental and choral forces at hand, Parrott encapsulated what Mozart once wrote, that “Händel understands effect better than any of us; when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.” At a talk given by Maestro Parrott for the Friends of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra on May 9th at the Jerusalem International YMCA on Händel and the ins-and-outs of the “Israel in Egypt” score, Maestro David Shemer informed the audience that Andrew Parrott had required the instrumentalists to be familiar with all the words of the work, their meaning and their inferential- and linguistic emphases. The result was an uplifting and vivid event to draw the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 2013-2014 season to a satisfying close.

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