George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)/Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Israel in Ägypten (1739; version for Düsseldorf, 1833, reconstructed by Robert King) [82.03]
Lydia Teuscher (soprano); Julia Doyle (soprano); Hilary Summers (alto); Benjamin Hulett (tenor); Roderick Williams (bass)
The Choir of the King’s Consort; The King’s Consort/Robert King
rec. 26-30 October 2015, St Jude’s Church, London NW11. DDD
VIVAT 111 [42:47 + 39:36]

In his championing of the revival of the music of his Baroque predecessors Bach and Handel, Mendelssohn has a credible claim to being regarded as the first HIP practitioner. For a good potted history of Mendelssohn’s lifelong involvement with presenting Israel in Ägypten, I refer readers to the review by my MusicWeb colleague Robert Hugill. It dates back to 2009 and it seems to have been a rather disappointing recording of a reconstruction of Mendelssohn's performance of Handel’s oratorio at the Rhine Music Festival on 26 May 1833. This new reconstruction by Robert King of the performance at the Düsseldorf Music Festival on 28 May 1833, evidently enjoys rather higher artistic standards and considerably larger forces than that previous recording, even if, with an orchestra of 46 and a choir of 36, they hardly approach in number Mendelssohn’s 275 singers and 134 orchestral players. In further pursuit of authenticity, this recording uses early Romantic period instruments and a pitch of 430 Hz.

For later performances, Mendelssohn employed an organ as additional accompaniment, whereas this recording replicates – sometimes using informed guesswork - his supplementing of Handel’s instrumentation with extra scoring for a double bass, a trumpet, a trombone, and two each of solo cellos, clarinets, flutes and horns. He also restored passages he had discovered while perusing Handel’s manuscript and an old libretto in London.

Apart from the obvious fact that the work is sung in German, other major changes from Handel’s original concept include the addition of the “Trumpet Overture”, adapted from a splendid piece composed by Mendelssohn when he was seventeen. It offers an apt and felicitous combination of baroque pomp and the melodious fleetness typical of the later composer. Another big difference is the omission of “The Lamentations for the Death of Joseph”, which originally formed the first part of the oratorio and in typically resourceful Handelian style had been adapted from the “Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline”. Previous recordings in English, such as that by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, have kept that introduction and supplemented the whole with organ concertos, but Handel himself cut the work when it became apparent, after its first performance, that it was not going to please, being, in his words, “too solemn for common ears” with its preponderance of choruses and lack of operatic-style arias.

Mendelssohn, too, found it necessary to make cuts and reduce the scope of his ambition to accommodate the partially amateur status of his performers. I think it a pity that he re-allocated the famous “Frogs” aria from alto to bass, as its macabre humour hardly makes the same impact in that tessitura, albeit well sung here by Roderick Williams. However, the wit and invention of Handel’s depiction of the plague of flies, pounding hail-storm and the imposition of suffocating darkness upon Egypt emerge vividly here, especially in their supplemented arrangements by Mendelssohn.

The vocal soloists’ contribution here is not as important as is usually the case in Handel’s oratorios but they are all excellent, especially Benjamin Hulett’s clear, bright tenor. The choral and orchestral playing is of the high standard you would expect from this provenance and overall the whole enterprise must be accounted a great success, appealing not just to musicologists but to anyone with a taste for both composers.
Ralph Moore

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