The Organ

Israel in Egypt

York Minster
5th July

The theme for this, the 31st York Early Music Festival, is 'Exiled – Music in a Strange Land' and Handel's great oratorio Israel in Egypt illustrates this perfectly. It was composed in October 1738 and given its first performance in the King's Theatre, Haymarket in April 1739. It consists of three parts: The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph; Exodus; and Moses' Song. The work was not an initial success and did not have great public appeal; Handel responded by making certain amendments. Many modern recordings of this work now omit most of the original first part. However, for the concert in York the full three part format of April 1739 was performed and the audience were certainly not disappointed. The oratorio was performed by the Yorkshire Bach Choir and Yorkshire Baroque soloists directed by Peter Seymour. The Yorkshire Bach Choir was formed in 1979 by Peter Seymour in order to perform a repertoire ranging from Tudor to contemporary music, with an emphasis on music from the late sixteenth to early nineteenth centuries. The Yorkshire Baroque Soloists were formed in 1973 by Peter to perform repertoire from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for forces ranging from chamber to orchestral size. The orchestra was augmented, after the first part, by the brass players, who certainly added to the overall effect and sound. The soloists for the performance were Yvonne Seymour and Wendy Goodson (sopranos), Robin Blaze (alto-countertenor), Jason Darnell (tenor), Tom Appleton and Andrew Thompson (basses).

Sitting in the front nave amidst the glorious surroundings of York Minster there was an air of anticipation among the packed audience as the choir and soloists took their places. With the Minster's own organ as the backdrop there could not have been a more perfect setting. After the opening Symphony, a rather majestic but melancholic start, the choir's first notes soared beautifully up to the roof; this was the first of three mighty opening choruses. Indeed, apart from the demands made on the orchestra throughout, this oratorio is also particularly challenging for the choir who have no fewer than 32 choruses to sing out of 42 items in all. They carried this off splendidly producing wave after wave of lyrical sound and glorious harmonies. In one of these, from Part 2, which describes God giving the people 'hailstones for rain' and 'fire mingled with the hail ran along upon the ground' you could almost hear the hailstones falling; this was made even more effective by the fact that York had been subjected earlier that very afternoon to a most tremendous thunderstorm and cloudburst.

There were many highlights throughout which demonstrated Handel's originality and imagination. The work contains many vivid images – the hailstones already mentioned; the strings in No. 17 evoking the buzzing of the flies; the way the basses at the end of No. 29 ('sank into the bottom as a stone') take an enormous downward leap; the timpani in No. 23 representing the turbulence of the seas; the very solemn and beautiful opening of No. 10 ('their bodies are buried in peace') developing into a much quicker conclusion ('their name liveth evermore'); the interplay between the two bass soloists and the orchestra in No. 28 ('The Lord is a man of war') with a particularly fantastic timpani involvement. A word here about the soloists. While the major part played by the choir has already been mentioned it should not be thought that the soloists do not have a significant amount to contribute. All of them were superb and it would be unfair to pick out individuals but for me Jason Darnell shone, with a very assured and resonant performance throughout, closely followed by Yvonne Seymour and Robin Blaze.

In the canon of Handel oratorio works such as Messiah, Solomon and Xerxes need little or no introduction. Israel in Egypt is undoubtedly less well known but deserves to be much more widely performed and appreciated. If you cannot get to a live performance seek out a good recording (of which I have two). It is to be hoped that, through the sterling efforts of Peter Seymour and his orchestra, choir and soloists many more people will now spread the word and encourage new admirers of this excellent work.