Review: An Unexpectedly Relevant Oratorio at the Philharmonic

Handel is not a composer typically associated with controversy, but the New York Philharmonic found itself entering a difficult public discourse with its performances of the oratorio “Israel in Egypt” this week at David Geffen Hall.

As thousands have died in the Israel-Hamas war, and as the conflict has inflamed tensions around the world, Cambridge University’s opera society has canceled a performance of Handel’s “Saul,” which depicts the Israelite David’s victory over the Philistine Goliath. That is the oratorio Handel wrote before “Israel in Egypt,” about a powerless people fleeing the subjugation of an oppressive state.

“Israel in Egypt” is less dramatic than “Saul,” and for its concerts, the Philharmonic opted for a program note. In it, the organization’s leadership clarified that this week’s performances were planned more than a year ago and added, “What we could not have anticipated is recent world events, making the timing of this program particularly relevant.”

The oratorio’s tale could have been a source of empathy and catharsis for audiences, but that’s not exactly the piece Handel wrote. For those familiar with “Messiah,” Handel’s other English-language oratorio that lifts its text from Scripture, “Israel in Egypt” is an oddity. Written almost entirely for choral forces, with few showpieces for the soloists, it narrates the Jewish exodus that Moses led from Egypt. To modern ears, the text painting of the 10 plagues is so lightweight that it verges on silliness: The orchestra leaps to depict frogs, buzzes for flies and thumps for hailstones.

Still, the melancholy-saturated lamentation that opens the piece, and the triumphant choruses that close it, adds substance. And on Wednesday, the conductor and Baroque specialist Jeannette Sorrell led a sonorous performance, drawing captivating singing from the choristers of Apollo’s Fire and intermittently inspiring the Philharmonic’s players to embrace fleeter, Handelian style on their modern instruments.

The Apollo’s Fire chorus, a gem of an ensemble, anchored the evening with a beguiling sound. In the big, unified moments, the voice parts stacked atop one another in pellucid columns. Tricky double choruses and fugues had a lucent, weightless, nimble quality.

Sorrell’s brisk adaptation trims the score to roughly 80 minutes, which offset the orchestra’s occasionally slackened energy. She wisely reinstated the intensely emotional, sometimes cut lamentation (a decision she also made on a recently released recording with Apollo’s Fire). With a theatrical flourish, she cut short the Exodus section so that it concluded with a thrilling depiction of Pharaoh’s army drowning in the Red Sea.

Among the vocal soloists, Amanda Forsythe demonstrated a limpid soprano in “Thou didst blow,” and Edward Vogel showed a rather appealing, midweight baritone in his insertion aria, “To God our strength” (aided by Christopher Martin’s dignified trumpet solo). The tenor Jacob Perry and the soprano Sonya Headlam filled their music with character, and the countertenor Cody Bowers sang with a beautifully shaped tone and enthusiasm to spare.

Handel devoted much of the final section, “Moses’ Song,” to a triumphant account of the Red Sea’s parting. In “The depths have covered them,” the strings were as broad and far-reaching as the water’s surface. In the score and the story it recounts, the moment is a deus ex machina. Today, though, we do not live in a time of miracles.

New York Philharmonic

Performed on Wednesday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan.

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