Works from the period of Handel's transition from a failed opera composer to a successful oratorio composer in London are rare indeed in the Triad and Triangle. Too often all we hear are Messiahs of varying authenticity served up in the "soupy" acoustics of a church. It was therefore a real treat to hear on April 13, on the heels of the NC Master Chorale's recent reading (reviewed by CVNC ), a well-prepared edition of Israel in Egypt in the clear sound space of the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem. Conductor James Allbritten (a skilled tenor whom we admire) directed the North Carolina School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra and a choir made up of the NCSA Cantata Singers and members of the Winston-Salem Symphony Chorale. The physical distribution of forces greatly aided the musical experience. With men dressed in black tops and women in white, two choirs were arrayed, left and right, at the back of the stage. To showcase the quality of the individual members of the Cantata Singers, each recitative and aria was taken by a different choir member, in turn. To provide an aisle for soloists, a space was created between first and second violins. This effectively divided them and facilitated definition when there was separate scoring for the two sections. There were nine first violins and six seconds, four violas, four cellos, and four double basses. Pairs of oboes, bassoons, trumpets were joined by three trombones and timpani. Matthew Brown provided the easily-heard harpsichord continuo. Immediately behind, Jean Blackwood played the fine-sounding chamber organ.
An unidentified "sinfonia" opened the performance. I don't believe it was the F Major Organ Concerto, believed to have been used originally. Clear and detailed string articulation augured well for the whole evening. Part I was exciting, with vivid choruses and solos describing the various plagues visited upon Egypt. Mezzo-soprano Olivia Vote clearly projected "Their land brought forth frogs" with an evenly-supported voice. The most exciting choruses and the work's richest tone painting followed this aria. Elaborate string scoring and resounding trombones underlay the men's chorus, "He spake the word." As she warmed up during the extended aria "Through the land so lovely blooming," soprano Ruth Engel brought warmth as well as brilliant high notes to the pastoral painting. Wide dynamics characterized the choruses depicting the dividing of the Red Sea.
Part II begins with the rousing chorus, "Moses and the Children of Israel," with martial brass and percussion. Sopranos Engel and Michelle Trovato brought a lovely contrast in timbres to their duet, "The Lord is my strength." Baritone Krassen Karagiozov and bass-baritone Jason McKinney darkly and firmly projected their duet, "The Lord is a man of War," well underpinned by bassoonists Kendall Wilson and Brenda Balazs. With all its repetitions, I'm sure we all figured out that "Lord is his name." (This is not one of my favorite Handelian texts!) Dale Walker's lovely light tenor was used to good effect in "The enemy said." Some of the finest orchestral effects underlay soprano Kristen Yarborough's "Thou didst blow," describing the collapse of the waters upon the pursuing Egyptians. Kudos to oboists Anna Lodico and Michal Rogalski, bassoonist Wilson, violist Holly Attar, cellist David Himmelheber and harpsichordist Brown, whose lovely lute stop was heard easily. Alto Jessie Sargent (to these ears, a deep mezzo-soprano) and Charles Pofahl's fine tenor blended perfectly in their duet, "Thou in thy mercy." The chorus "Thou shalt bring them in" was especially strong, with striking dynamic effects. Four cellos playing as one accompanied the firm and well-projected mezzo-soprano of Joanna Gates in "Thou shalt bring them in." The fast and vigorous chorus "The Lord shall reign," with its precision at a challenging tempo, was impressive. High praise for the clarion tenor of Mitchener Beasley, impressive in the recitative "For the horse of the Pharaoh." Brilliant brass and spirited singing characterized the concluding choruses. From within the left chorus, soprano Yarborough delivered the last recitative, "And Miriam the prophetess." All the soloists and both choirs had outstanding diction. Special praise should go to the perfectly matched intonation of cellists Himmelheber's and Jacqueline Canipe's continuo playing. Overall it was an impressive evening of music by any benchmark. This performance set a standard of excellence that will be hard to surpass. The clear acoustics of Stevens Center allowed every detail to register. I will look forward to further exploration of relatively rare Handel oratorios.