This is the third performance of Israel in Egypt in my collection; and it may be that three is the magic number where this work is concerned, because it is only with this recording that I have finally made sense of the piece. Along with a performance that I once attended in London, the other two recordings treat Israel in Egypt as a two-part work. So, if I recall, does Percy Young in his Master Musicians book on Handel; and so, very significantly, does Tovey. Writing during the depth of the reaction against Handel, Tovey finds Israel in Egypt to be a patchy and incoherent oratorio, a thing of peaks and troughs making an unconvincing and abrupt start with no overture. Dismissing as absurd Handel's own proposal to preface it with the great and lengthy Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, Tovey used the Dead March from Saul and went on his way, if not exactly rejoicing, then at least satisfied.
I am in no doubt that my own opinion has been overly influenced by Tovey down the years, but I also note Shaw's grumpy remark that at least Handel had been able to bring some musicality to a project that was basically unmusical. Shaw was much less susceptible to orthodoxy than Tovey was, but when two critics of such contrasted eminence come to such similar conclusions I have to think that there really is some kind of, I do not say problem, but at least issue here. The issue I now believe to be that Handel knew what he was doing, and that Israel in Egypt is incomprehensible without its intended first element, an adapted version of the Funeral Anthem. The point is made admirably in the short but sensible liner-note with this set - Italian opera was a busted flush, and Handel was experimenting with different ideas in the field of oratorio, producing in Israel in Egypt an idea of the utmost audacity, namely a work that would exploit to the utmost his genius as a composer for chorus, and exploit it in three highly contrasted sections.
Whether this makes Israel in Egypt a totally coherent work I am still uncertain, but it makes it a comprehensible one, and it also helps one dismiss as they deserve some of Tovey's more offhand and foolish opinions (mixed in of course with flashes of brilliant insight) regarding parts of the work, opinions that he got away with because of his basic perception that the libretto as he understood it was an unsuccessful version of a `normal' oratorio libretto. Successful or not, this is an extraordinary venture. Anything a chorus can be made to do, it is made to do here. Handel's choral writing has always seemed to me to be a thing apart, and I'm glad to find I have the support of Beecham for this view. Moreover Haydn on his last visit to London, and at the peak of his own great powers, lamented that Handel made him feel an amateur. I think I can understand that - after listening to Handel's treatment of the chorus I find anyone else's - not just Haydn's, anyone's - hopelessly lacking in resourcefulness. Is there in the whole of music anything remotely like `And with the blast'? The celestial `But as for His people' is not remotely like it, unless in the sense that it is equally unlike anything else I know. These and the famous Plague Choruses are among the high spots, but there is more to this composition than high spots. The liner-note makes, but slightly fumbles, a very interesting point that some of the choral work functions like recitative. Indeed it does, but I don't buy the example that the writer chooses, the awesome Chorus of Darkness (superbly done here). The recitative-like choruses are short connecting items as you would expect, such as `He is my God'. This is actually one of the once-notorious `borrowings', about which such a silly fuss used to be made. If I recall, one Erba is the source of this, but it would be surprising if 100 composers had not written something nearly identical. The choral writing is a bit indistinct, but it makes a big grand noise, and for the 40 seconds that it lasts that was all Handel was after. Even here, as Tovey says, Handel needs to add two final bars of his own, just as grand in sound but making an embarrassing contrast in their clarity.
Of the borrowings that are not just tags that anyone might have written the most interesting to me is `Egypt was glad', apparently a canzona by Kerll and certainly not sounding like Handel. As Tovey says, it fits the mood of glum relief to perfection, and I wonder what Kerll used it to express. The solution to the Israel in Egypt Problem creates a bit of a problem of its own, I suppose, namely that the great Funeral Anthem is very sombre indeed, and mainly very slow. In the self-assertive early days of the `authentic' school there was a fashion for setting speed records (remember Hogwood's Messiah?) and Parrott is having none of that. This suits me, and in particular when we scale the very Everest of sublimity with `The people shall hear' I blessed him for his steady speed that lets that incredible piece of music `speak' as it ought.
If the chorus had not been up to it all this might have been blown with the wind, in the words of a particularly gorgeous aria here. The chorus are fully up to it, and so are the soloists, and the recording does them justice. If you like Handelian swashbuckle, there is a superb account by the two basses of `The Lord is a man of war', unaccountably rubbished by Tovey, and plenty more strikes the ear directly, something Handel perceived as an English demand. A great deal else takes getting to know in the mysterious depths of this great and strange composition. Let's get to know it.