SCO / Egarr
SCO / Egarr
Usher Hall, Edinburgh
When the SCO Chorus last sang Handel’s Israel in Egypt in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall, under Dutch conductor Peter Dijkstra, it seemed to me that the work, with its six soloists, full brass and chamber organ, was too big for the venue. While it was a surprise to find that was six years ago to the week – the Covid-era prohibition on choral singing has confused recollection of concerts past – that impression was confirmed by Richard Egarr’s dynamic direction, from the harpsichord, of the oratorio in the Usher Hall on Thursday evening.
There are some odd things about Israel in Egypt, one of the composer’s earliest excursions into Bible story-telling for the concert platform. Even in an age when recreation of original performance scores has become the thing, Part 1 is still usually consigned to the dustbin of history and we hear Handel’s revised version of Parts 2 and 3 with his addition of some arias for the soloists.
Those six voices – a stellar line-up of sopranos Rowan Pierce and Mary Bevan, mezzo Helen Charlston, tenor James Gilchrist and basses Ashley Riches and Peter Harvey here – are still far from overworked. Handel chose texts from Exodus and Psalms to tell the story of God’s chosen people, and the chorus therefore has the most to sing.
The SCO choir, refreshed by a good number of younger voices, did a superb job across all its sections, without a weak link in voice pitch, and crisp and clear through the entire evening. Egarr treated all the musicians on the Usher Hall stage equally, and the ensemble sound the collective made was superb, quite startlingly so in the combination of singing and instrumental playing in the hailstones of the plagues in Part 2.
From Gilchrist and Charleston’s almost “Once upon a time” storytelling approach to the opening, this Israel in Egypt was a captivating yarn. In Part 3, after the interval, the other soloists took their brief slots in the spotlight with style, Bevan and Pierce combining beautifully in duet only to be ungallantly upstaged by Harvey and Riches with a belligerent, duelling “The Lord is a man of war” that provoked its own ripple of applause.
Not for the first time at Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert, the final credit has to go Richard Egarr for bringing all of the elements together into a wonderful coherence. He was alive to all the contrasts in the score, digging into the platform with his fist on “He smote all the first-born” before gently shepherding the chorus and lyrical reed players in the chorus that immediately follows, and leading a trio of string principals from the keyboard in the continuo.
Handel was still experimenting when he wrote Israel in Egypt, with the triumph of Messiah a few years off, but in this performance, with all its meticulous details and ensemble endeavour, it was very much more than a work-in-progress.