Album review: Handel-Mendelssohn, Israel in Aegypten

By William Dart

Photo / iStock
Photo / iStock

By the standards of present-day "Back-to-Baroquers", Mendelssohn was a musical meddler.

Within seconds of the opening track of Robert King's new recording of Handel's Israel in Egypt, Handel enthusiasts will notice something seriously amiss.

The original oratorio sets off with a tenor recitative, but this new version is introduced by almost 10 minutes of overture, entirely from Mendelssohn's pen, right down to a few billows from his Hebrides Overture.

This new release, on the Vivat label, lovingly presents a musicological curiosity: the conductor's reconstruction of Mendelssohn's 1833 arrangement of the Handel oratorio, taking full advantage of the rich resources of a 19th century symphony orchestra.

Orchestral colour is a major component in this project's success and not only in the almost naïve grandeur of its overture with its chattering woodwind interludes.

When bass Roderick Williams enters, describing a land plagued with frogs, a willowy clarinet weaves sinuously through the croaking rhythms. Two tracks on, a jubilant chorus pits brass fanfares against scurrying violin lines that would fit well in the enchanted forest of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Purists will doubtlessly regret a number of omissions from the original score, starting with Handel's gnarly second chorus, all brought about by the limitations of Mendelssohn's original performers.

King marshals proceedings with his usual sense of pace and panache, with a fine group of soloists who handle their German text well. Hilary Summers and Roderick Williams enjoy the most sonorous of the work's various duets while two fine sopranos - Julia Doyle is particularly effective - catch the waft of breeze and water, against a subtly-tinted instrumental wash.

Israel in Egypt never has been celebrated for its arias, but rather for its mighty choruses written in the monument style that Beethoven described as a model of how to achieve vast effects with simple means.

The Choir of the Kings Consort delivers their fugues with linear precision and, with the famous illustrative choruses; you'd worry for the survival of your umbrella during the hailstones sequence and flinch at the powerful chords during the smiting of the first-born.

Verdict: Robert King creates musical satisfaction from musicological excavation

- NZ Herald

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