H&H chorus leads the way
Recent political turmoil in Cairo has rendered the political message of George Frideric Handel’s massive 1738 oratorio “Israel in Egypt’’ oddly relevant. At Symphony Hall on Friday evening, the energetic forces of the Handel and Haydn Society, radiantly commanded by artistic director Harry Christophers, projected with special urgency Old Testament texts about the triumph of Egypt’s Jews over tyranny. This is music to stage a revolution by.
At the time of its premiere in 1739, “Israel in Egypt’’ was also interpreted politically. Some listeners viewed their monarch, George II, as a foreign-born usurper who ought to be overthrown. But then the dramatic events of the book of “Exodus’’ — plagues of frogs, flies, lice, locusts, floods — have been successfully put to many different uses. Who can forget Moses (Charlton Heston) parting the Red Sea waters in Cecil B. de Mille’s 1956 film “The Ten Commandments’’?
Among Handel’s oratorios “Israel in Egypt’’ is unusual because most of the music is for chorus (actually, two choruses often singing antiphonally) and orchestra. Don’t look here for the diva star-turns found in “The Messiah.’’ The chorus takes the lead in telling the story, in three parts: “The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph,’’ “Exodus,’’ and “Moses’ Song.’’ Part II has most of the action, while Part III provides extended spiritual commentary.
Especially in Part II, Handel demonstrates his inventive skill at “word-painting,’’ creating almost cinematic-style musical illustration. The society’s well-rehearsed string section dashed off with aplomb the skittering, busy 30-second note runs that depict the nasty buzzing “flies and lice.’’ In the contrasting pastoral passage “But as for his people, he led them forth like sheep,’’ flutists Christopher Krueger and Wendy Rolfe played like good shepherds, with sweet, refined tone, the chorus softly bleating behind them. The timpani rumbled like waves when the water closes over Pharaoh’s pursuing chariots.
Christophers chose to assign all the solo vocal parts to H&H chorus members. The results were variable but for the most part satisfying. Nikolas Nackley and Bradford Gleim sang the famous bass duet “The Lord is a man of war’’ as a sort of testosterone-laden showdown. In “Thou didst blow with the wind,’’ Margot Rood hushed the audience with her fresh, open tone and glowing, focused pitch. But the night really belonged to the chorus, which sang throughout with subtlety, power, and dramatic agility.
Harlow Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.