Handel’s Israel in Egypt revived by Advocati

Handel’s Israel in Egypt, revived before Christmas, in Birmingham’s Victoria Law Courts, by Advocati under the direction of John Saunders, is scarcely unbiased. A review by Roderick Dunnett

 

It’s a black-and-white, unconfirmed Biblical yarn, with godly ‘right’ pitched against brazen ‘wrong’. Like swashbuckling Hollywood epics, Charles Jennens (librettist of Messiah), pilfering Exodus and Psalms, evinces sympathy for the Israelites, led by Moses, moping over their illegal enslavement.

‘And the children of Israel sighed…’: this compelling choir (Advocati is formed primarily by many connected – in whatever guise – with Birmingham’s law courts), confirmed again, excitingly, its mettle.

The end is well known: tangled chariots, villainous, godless pursuers versus near-cornered escapees, ruthlessly crowing over the picturesque obliteration of their Memphis persecutors. In the Middle East, has much changed today?

Capitalising on an awesome, reverberant acoustic, for these professional-sounding performers to revel in, and – like a judge crafting a tightened summing-up – Saunders J made some judicious large cuts. Handel, too, tidied and compressed his choruses, introducing more palatable soli and poached (notably from Alessandro Stradella, 1643-82).

These arias (one sung shatteringly from above) shone. A couple were perhaps a fraction pallid. But Advocati’s forceful impact occluded any doubts. Sopranos Charlotte-Anne Shipley, Helen Arthur and Rebecca Lloyd injected frogs, blisters, and Egypt’s doom-laden chariots with scattered poignancy as well as snarling. A gloating, mutually entwined bass duet (Paul Arthur, Peter Scurlock) suitably exploded. With Egypt’s first-born brutally wiped out, who on earth supplied the army?

Advocati’s massed voices – there were plenty – assisted by an accomplished professional orchestra proved immediately intoxicating. (‘They sighed at their bondage’ – much like ‘By the waters of Babylon’.) After ‘rivers of blood’, flies, gnats and (disastrous) locusts, hailstones, crippling darkness, came ghastlily: ‘He smote their first-born – chief of all their strength’. Hints of Messiah creep in: ‘He (ie God: Moses gets mentioned only thrice) led his people forth like sheep.’ (Those ‘sheep’ were also pillagers.)

Part II ventures dangerously near the boring, plus morally suspect. Choruses galore bleat not so much relief as vengeance. The mood is, arguably, tiresomely Fortissimo. Whether Handel need labour the savage and swaggering (‘horses, riders... sank like a stone [or] like lead’) might be queried.

Yet excellently managed fugues, an overwhelming double chorus (compare Handel’s Coronation Anthems), plus jubilant, energised timpani (from Matt Green) ensured a melodramatic, cheerfully near-hysterical outpouring.

Advocati’s forces triumphed, like Israel. Yet gentler gratitude to the Deity verges on the ethereal. Emotional contrasts were so perceptively paced, any potential ennui was skirted. Armed with a simple, restrained, eloquent, empathetic clear beat, this Israel suggested Haydn (Creation), even Elgar (Apostles).

Rameses II, new, young, perfidious (later a potent warrior-king), gets his deserts. No wonder, with another European conflict impending, 18th century audiences loved Handel’s blistering offering: a sort of vindication. 

About Advocati

Sir John Saunders writes: Advocati, a lawyers’ choir based in Birmingham, was formed about 15 years ago and aims to provide some life/work balance and enjoyment through performing great music (much needed in these times when morale and legal funding are so low). We are delighted to have the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge as our patron. Anyone connected with the law can join Advocati. We count among our members both retired and current Judges, barristers, solicitors, magistrates, members of the court staff, together with any partners who wish to join in. We do recruit some friends who are experienced singers to help out. Our members enjoy singing but do not all have the time to join a regular choir. Advocati puts on about one performance a year in the hall of the Victoria Law Courts, a spectacular Victorian building with wonderful acoustics. We have about six or seven rehearsals before each concert, normally on a Wednesday night between 6 and 7pm. As we are extremely fortunate to have sponsorship, we are able to hire a professional orchestra and make a donation to charity from the proceeds of the concert. This year we were able to support a charity which helps to fund young people to pursue their musical studies and Support through Court (formerly the Personal Support Unit) which assists litigants who need assistance. 

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Roderick Dunnett

Roderick Dunnett is a music critic, journalist and broadcaster.