Handel - Mendelssohn: Israel in Egypt
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Cat No: VIVAT111
Number of Discs: 2
Release Date: 18th March 2016
Choir of The King’s Consort
The King’s Consort
In 1739 Handel composed a vivid oratorio, Israel in Egypt, depicting the Israelites’ struggle for release by an obdurate Egyptian Pharaoh. Handel brilliantly colours the Old Testament story which recounts the series of plagus sent to remind Pharaoh of his broken promises. Frogs, blotches, swarms of flies, hailstorms, a murky darkness and finally the striking down of all the first-born of Egypt persuade Pharoah to release the Israelites. When Pharaoh again changes his mind, the Red Sea miraculously parts to let the Israelites cross, but swallows up their pursuers. Finally, in music of great grandeur, the Israelites celebrate their deliverance. Handel has rarely been so inspired!
Little wonder then that, in 1833, when the great composer Felix Mendelssohn discovered Handel’s 1739 score, he gathered together what materials he could to perform it. He made significant changes, composing his own brilliant overture, adding and cutting movements, and also radically changing the orchestration. Mendelssohn’s score too fell into near-oblivion, but was reconstructed over two years from original surviving manuscript sources by Robert King for performance in 2014 at the Mendelssohn Festival at Leipzig Gewandhaus – the city in which Mendelssohn founded and conducted the famous orchestra of that name. A critical and artistic success, that performance will now be recorded for CD and released in Spring 2016, with an international line of soloists (Lydia Teuscher, Julia Doyle, Hilary Summers, Ben Hulett, Roderick Williams), the Choir of The King’s Consort and the large and colourful period instrument orchestra The King’s Consort, under the baton of Robert King.
2Nun kam ein neuer König
3Aber die Kinder Israels schrien
4Und Frösche ohne Zahl
5Er sprach das Wort
6Hagen statt Regen
7Er sandte dicke Finsternis
8Er schlug alle Erstgeburt'
9Aber mit seinem Volke
10Hoffnung lindert unsre Schmerzen
11Er gebot der Meerflut
12Aber die Fluten überwältigten
13Moses und die Kinder Israel
14Ich will singen meinem Gott
15Der Herr ist mein Heil
16Er ist mein Gott
17Die Tiefe deckte sie
18Deine Rechte, o Herr
19Die Himmel sind dein
20Und von dem Hauch
21So dachte der Feind
22Aber du ließest wehen
23Wer ist dir gleich, O Herr
24Das hören die Völker
25Bringe sie hinein
26Der Herr ist König
27Und Mirjam die Prophetin
28Singet unserem Gott
Mendelssohn was not alone in studying the works of his musical forebears (both Mozart and Beethoven were keen admirers of the Baroque masters), but he was the first to put that study into practice by reviving neglected large-scale works. That makes him an entirely appropriate choice for today’s historically inquiring musicians, and Robert King, together with the enlarged King’s Consort, does a splendid job in reconstructing Mendelssohn’s 1833 version of Israel in Ägypten (as it is in German). Although recognisable as Handel’s masterpiece, Mendelssohn wrought extensive and often far-reaching changes on the work. Apart from the change to a German text, the absence of an organ for most of Mendelssohn’s own performances meant that the recitatives were accompanied instead by a pair of double-stopped cellos underpinned by a double bass: the first recitative (‘Nun kam ein neuer König’) survives in this adapted form, and King has applied the same principle throughout the work, a striking transformation to the sound-world. In the arias and choruses, sparer passages that would have been filled out by the keyboard continuo are instead enriched by attractive-sounding clarinets, and Mendelssohn brought his skill as an orchestrator to bear throughout the score, sensitively introducing new colours (as in the Part I chorus ‘Er sandte dicke Finsternis’ (He sent a thick darkness)).
Mendelssohn made a few judicious cuts, but also reassigned some arias and recitatives, and even incorporated a lovely duet from one of the Chandos anthems in Part II (‘Die Himmel sind dein’). The effect on nineteenth-century German audiences must have been impressive indeed. Most drastic of all, Mendelssohn provided his own instrumental introduction to the work: none other than his early Trumpet Overture of 1826, a splendidly spirited work, now with added trombones, a few cuts, and a revised ending to lead more effectively into its new context. It’s pure Mendelssohn, and a really striking opener to proceedings.
The results in this recording are a triumph of both scholarship and performance. Robert King has been fastidious in his reconstruction and research, using instruments, techniques and phrasing appropriate to the 1830s. Adopting lively speeds and buoyant rhythms, this 19th-century version of the Baroque sounds surprisingly like the ‘real thing’ in many respects, yet the devil is in the detail. Listen carefully, and everything from bow-strokes to trills and portamento has been carefully thought-through and realised with utmost care. Soloists are excellent, not least sopranos Lydia Teuscher and Julia Doyle, who respectively sing in a pair of utterly captivating arias in Part II (‘So dachte der Feind’ and ‘Aber du ließest wehen’). The orchestra, too, is superb, with woodwind and brass in particular bringing an appropriate period flavour to the music, and some well-defined timpani playing. Above all, it’s the choir of the King’s Consort (with 36 voices, somewhat smaller than used by Mendelssohn) that makes this unique recording of Israel in Ägypten so thrilling: incisive, impassioned and dramatic, especially vivid in the plagues of Part I, and enhanced by a perfectly-judged recording.
The presentation is exemplary: an historical introduction by Mendelssohn expert R Larry Todd, and a detailed essay on the version and its reconstruction by Robert King himself, illuminated by reproductions from the relevant scores and manuscripts. Altogether hugely impressive.
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