Glover, MOB, bring Biblical fervor
to "Israel in Egypt"

The popularity of Messiah has so dominated the landscape for nearly three centuries that Handel’s other oratorios rarely receive the opportunity to be heard. Even those works that established some success with audiences in the 19th century have yielded ground, as much a testament to contemporary conservative programming as the ineradicable enthusiasm for Messiah.

All credit then to Music of the Baroque for bucking the trend by presenting Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt, conducted by Jane Glover Monday night at the Harris Theater.

Like Messiah, Israel in Egypt arranges biblical texts—mostly from Exodus and the Psalms—- to tell its dramatic story of the imprisonment of the Jews in Egypt, the plagues sent upon their captors, the Israelites’ escape and ultimate triumph as the Egyptians are drowned in the Red Sea.

Handel recycled several earlier works for Israel in Egypt with ample borrowings from his own works as well as freely swiping material from some contemporaries. While not quite possessing the thematic indelibility of Messiah, Israel in Egypt has plenty of worthy music to offer on its own with several rousing choruses and much piquant and clever writing in depicting the plagues of Egypt.

It’s too bad that Glover didn’t opt for the original three-part 1739 version with its extended first section, “The Lamentations of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph” set to Handel’s magnificent anthem The Ways of Zion do Mourn, written for Queen Caroline’s funeral. That long somber section seems to set the dark, bleak mood of imprisonment more atmospherically whereas in the revised two-part version we are dropped peremptorily into a tenor recitative opening the Exodus section.

Textual issues apart, Glover and the Music of the Baroque orchestra and chorus succeeded brilliantly in putting this inspired score across. Glover consistently illuminated Handel’s imaginative musical onomatopoeia as with the whirling violin passages depicting the flies, the pizzicato for rain, and uninhibited timpani and trumpets for a driving hailstorm.

MOB’s music director also drew out the mystery and unsettling expression of “He sent a thick darkness over all the land” and strongly conveyed the passages of implacable Old Testament fury, as with the emphatic accents as the chorus sings of the Egyptians being smote and the waters overwhelming their enemies. Throughout, she emphasized the drama with firm dynamic contrasts, as well as bringing an airy lightness to the moments of repose.

The solo arias are secondary to the chorus in this work, and Glover elected to have chorus members take the solos rather than guest artists. This they did with aplomb, with especially vibrant contributions from tenors Daniel Shirley and Klaus Georg. Countertenor Joseph Schlesinger displayed graceful vocalism in his arias and baritones Keven Keys and Todd von Felker blended fluently in the duet, “The Lord is a man of war.” The orchestra played very well indeed with CSO trumpeters Christopher Martin and Tage Larsen adding gleam to the brilliant moments.

But this was really the chorus’s show. Scrupulously prepared by William Jon Gray, the ensemble sang with polish—one early entrance apart—sensitivity and fervor, with quite thrilling execution of Handel’s challenging fugal choruses.

Music of the Baroque closes its season with Bach’s St. John Passion May 19 and 20.