EASTER, LIKE Christmas, is an occasion for performing and enjoying Handel's "Messiah," surely the most popular and beloved oratorio of all time. This particular Easter Sunday happens to mark the beginning of Passover (the two holidays seldom coincide), and Handel wrote an oratorio for that occasion, too, "Israel in Egypt." A new recording of his work, from Erato, has been issued by the Musical Heritage Society (MHS 824273, two discs).
John Eliot Gardiner conducts his Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, with a clutch of soloists whose unfamiliar names suggest they are members of the choir. That very factor -- the use of unknown soloists, with various sopranos, tenors, counter-tenors, etc. alternating in the respective solo numbers -- tends to point up a not-unreasonable view of the work as one in which the chorus is all-important and the solos more or less incidental It points up, too, the one weakness of this version.
Sir John Mackerras, in his DG Archiv recording (2708.020), assigned the solos to such singers as Heather Harper, Alexander Young, Michael Rippon and the counter-tenor Paul Esswood -- and they do make a difference. Elisabeth Priday, Gardiner's soprano, is stylish enough, but simply doesn't have the power for the unaccompained solo introducing the grand final chorus. Heather Harper does, and similar comparisons have to be acknowededged at a few other points.
However, the vivid and precise singing and playing of Gardiner's smaller choral and orchestral forces make a difference, too. Handel's instrumental descriptive effects -- the "Flies" chorus and the other references to the plagues, the pastoral background woven by the winds in "He led them forth like sheep," the drums in "But the waters overwhelmed their enemies," etc. -- can seldom have sounded forth so clearly and thrillingly. The jubilation of the oratorios long second part builds and builds, steadily and consistently, in Gardiner's splendid pacing. Only in the final chorus might one prefer Mackerras' somewhat larger chorus (as well as Harper), which provides a more shattering exultation.
Although many commentators have pronounced "Israel in Egypt" the finest of all Handel's oratorios, it is an imperfect work. Not because Handel borrowed several of his tunes from other composers -- that, after all, was common practice in his time, and what he did with his borrowed material was what made him Handel -- but because he provided no satisfactory opening number.
Originally the two parts of "Israel in Egypt" were parts two and three of a three-part work, the first portion of which was adapted from "The Ways of Zion Do Mourn," the funeral anthem Handel composed for Queen Caroline in 1737. The oratorio was a failure at its premiere (April 4, 1739), and Handel sought to improve it by junking the entire first part and adding a few solo arias in the remaining segments. This did make the work more attractive, but also left it opening with a tenor recitative.
Various conductors have used various pieces from Handel's other works to serve as the missing overture. Mackerras used part of the popular organ concerto known as "The Cuckoo and the Nightingale" -- with a certain historical justification, since that concerto was performed between the oratorio's two parts at the premiere, but it's rather jaunty for what follows. ygardiner's solution, which seems more fitting, is to open with the brief instrumental prelude to the jettisoned funeral anthem. Handel had retitled the music "Lamentations of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph," and the prelude fits nicely.
The recording is a very rich and conspicuously well-balanced one, but it must be played at full volume for its full effect to be made. I'm referring not only to the power of the big choruses, but to the subtle instrumental effects, and even the intelligibility of the sung text. The mastering and pressing have been carried off with great care, and the handy gatefold container carries a very helpful and informative note by Gardiner as well as the full text.