Thursday, February 24, 2011

Christophers and his chorus in previous action - photo by Stu Rosner.

I looked at my partner after the Handel and Haydn performance of Israel in Egypt last Sunday and simply said, "I think it's official." He nodded slightly.

"They're the best chorus in New England," we said together.

I know, the BSO's Tanglewood Festival Chorus is bigger - and given its size, admirably precise. The Boston Baroque chorale can be more personal and intimate. But for sheer eloquence and - how to put this - artistic firepower (?), I don't think the Handel and Haydn chorus has a peer these days.

The true begetters of this accolade are, of course, the singers themselves - pound for pound, these professionals are, I'd argue, the strongest group of vocalists in the region.  But of course their conductor, Harry Christophers, has had something to do with whipping them into such tip-top shape.  Way back in 2007, when I first heard Christophers (just before he was anointed Artistic Director of H&H), I was stunned by his facility with the chorale.  I continue to be stunned.  The man is a magician, that's all there is to it.

And Handel's little-heard oratorio Israel in Egypt gave him quite the stage on which to work his magic.  Christophers chose an early version of the 1738 composition (there are always various extant scores for Handel's oratorios, as he tweaked them over time), one that favored the choruses over the arias (you see Christophers knew both the work's central strength, and his secret weapon).  And then he went to work, drawing every shade of vocal color possible from Handel's palette.

It's quite a palette (in a way it's two palettes, as Handel often divides the chorus in two, like the Red Sea, and has it sing antiphonally with itself).  Other critics have cited the current political relevance of the piece; it was a political hot potato back in the day, too, for reasons of royal succession that are obscure now, just as the current parallels with Hosni Mubarak will be obscure in a few years' time.  Because amusingly enough, the oratorio itself isn't particularly political - unless you find the idea of freedom somehow controversial.  It is, instead, a gigantic tone poem, in which Handel's musical "image-painting" in Part II is perhaps the freest and most inventive of his entire career.

At times, I admit, the vocal metaphors here are nonetheless almost amusingly na├»ve - whenever God's angry, the chorus stomps around vocally, for instance.  But most of the time they are arrestingly imaginative.  When the flies descend on Egypt, the string section begins to sing like a cloud of insects, and when the fiery hail crashes down from the sky, an anarchic rumble of timpani and brass erupts (the orchestra was in fine form throughout, btw).  Most frightening is "He sent a thick darkness over all the land, a darkness that might be felt" an eerie dirge (of creepy modern tonality) that ended with a chilling emphasis on that last "darkness that might be felt."  In another mood entirely, "But as for his people, He led them forth like sheep" boasts one of Handel's sweetest melodies.  The introduction to the work is nearly as good as these pyrotechnics (even if it includes some themes "borrowed" by Handel, both from himself and other composers), and here the opening stanza of the piece, "The sons of Israel do mourn, and they are in bitterness" proved particularly haunting, as it was sung with a dazzling sense of emotional balance and precision.

Alas, Israel in Egypt peters out a bit - at least in imaginative terms - in Part III, perhaps because its text becomes repetitive and triumphalist (the Egyptians seem to die a thousand deaths in the crashing waves of the Red Sea).  And here the arias took over, which aren't quite as inspired as the choruses.  Christophers chose to assign these solos to members of the chorale (as is often done), which showcased some individual singers well, but pushed one or two vocalists into the limelight who, though blessed with gorgeous voices, didn't quite have the power to fill Symphony Hall.  Soprano Margot Rood and alto Emily Marvosh came off best - both brought a flexible technique and ripe color to their respective solos; there was also an impressive vocal wrestling match between basses Nicholas Nackley and Bradford Gleim, and a sparkling duet for H&H mainstays Brenna Wells and Teresa Wakim.  Elsewhere the singing was always adequate, but not quite transporting - until the chorus took over again, and Christophers and his vocal crew were once more in their element.

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