Not the Messiah…. Israel in Egypt

image of figure crossing the red seaThere’s a Handel oratorio being performed in Durham Cathedral, the week before Easter. And guess what? It’s not Messiah. Much as I love Handel’s masterpiece, it does tend to overshadow his other oratorios, so I’m delighted to see that Royal Northern Sinfonia are giving us a rare chance to hear Israel in Egypt instead. The oratorio tells the story of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, including the events which are remembered by Jews in the Passover feast, which means it aligns nicely with Easter too, as Jesus had travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover when he was arrested and crucified. 

Towards the end of the 1730s, Handel was having to face up to the fact that the craze for Italian opera that had made him his fortune was reaching burnout. Audiences were tired of seeing overpaid Italian superstars displaying their vocal pyrotechnics in a foreign language, and the London public preferred John Gay’s satire on the whole genre, The Beggar’s Opera. In 1737 Handel was losing eye-watering sums of money, and his health was suffering. The following year, he was bouncing back into action, writing his oratorios Saul and then Israel in Egypt in quick succession, both using libretti assembled from Old Testament texts by Charles Jennens (who later provided the words for Messiah).

When you hear RNS’s Israel in Egypt, the first thing you’ll notice is its abrupt beginning – it goes straight in with a bass recitative, without any sort of overture: it’s so odd that when I first listened to it on Spotify, I thought there were some tracks missing. The reason for this is that Handel originally began the work with a long funeral ode, The Lamentations of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph which he later dropped. Sacred oratorio was an experiment for audiences and composer alike, and Israel in Egypt was not an instant success. Handel had to satisfy public squeamishness about seeing Biblical stories presented on a stage, but at the same time they still wanted drama and entertainment. In Saul Handel used his orchestra to supply the dramatic effects; in Israel in Egypt he turned to the chorus, who sing most of the oratorio and the public took a while to get used to this. Eventually both Handel and the public got used to this new genre, and his oratorio composing flourished.

The highlights of Israel in Egypt are, unsurprisingly, the numbers that cover the ten plagues, in which Handel allows his musical imagination to run wild. The orchestra buzz malevolently as the flies and locusts settle on Egypt, pinging oboes give us the hailstones and there’s a wonderfully spooky chorus for the darkness. In one of the best arias of the piece, the strings bounce cheerfully up and down while the alto sings about frogs and pestilence. The plagues culminate when the Lord strikes down the firstborn, marked with a raging chorus and vicious blows in the orchestra. It’s definitely the Sunday School version of the story, there’s not a lot of subtlety and certainly no sympathy for the poor old Egyptians in all this, but it’s immensely fun to listen to.

The crossing of the Red Sea marks the end of Part 1. The second part began life as a separate smaller work called Moses’s Song and celebrates the Israelites’ deliverance. In his biography of Handel, Christopher Hogwood points out that the British public was in quite a bellicose mood at the time, as the government contemplated war with Spain, and suggests that this is reflected in the music for Moses’s Song, with movements like the bass duet “The Lord is a Man of War” or the chorus “Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power”. There are also some typically Handelian choruses praising God and proclaiming that he will reign for ever. Oh and there’s one called “and with the blast of Thy nostrils the waters were gathered together” which I imagine must be very hard to sing without giggling.

The whole oratorio will be a real showcase for the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia, as well as a test of stamina. Everything that we enjoy about the choruses in Messiah is already in place here: the big fugues, the dramatic statements, long runs and with plenty of trumpets and drums to keep the energy going. What Israel in Egypt does lack is really profound solos, but there are some rather nice descriptive ones, such as the alto’s plague of frogs that I’ve already mentioned, and a fittingly fresh and breezy “Thou didst blow with the wind” for soprano and oboe.

The soloists for Royal Northern Sinfonia’s Israel in Egypt are all Samling Artists. Every year, Samling selects a small group of emerging professional singers, and nurtures them with intensive coaching and masterclasses as well as giving them showcase performance opportunities. (You can read more on my blog post about their public masterclasses). You have to be exceptionally good to get onto the Samling programme, so although I’ve only heard one of the six soloists for Israel in Egypt, I can be confident that all of them will be stunning. The one name known to me, and I’m sure to many reading this in the North East, is soprano Rowan Pierce. The last time I heard her was on Radio Three when she was singing Monteverdi duets with Carolyn Sampson and the Academy of Ancient Music: as we all expected, she’s rapidly becoming a star, and I can’t wait to hear her singing live back in the North East again.

Royal Northern Sinfonia usually bring in specialist conductors for their baroque performances, and this time it’s Nicholas McGegan, who has worked with them a number of times before, including a couple of appearances with the orchestra at the BBC Proms: I’ve never heard him, but on a quick skim through some of the reviews, the word “dramatic” seems to pop up a lot, so I think we can expect plenty of action in Handel’s highly colourful and dramatic oratorio.

Royal Northern Sinfonia perform Israel in Egypt in Durham Cathedral on 11 April (details here) and at Sage Gateshead on 13 April. I’ll be reviewing the Sage performance for Bachtrack.

To find out more about the soloists and Samling: