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Brilliant Baroque

Philharmonia Baroque soars with Handel's massive choral masterpiece 'Israel in Egypt'

By Philip Collins

AFTER ATTENDING performances of two of Handel's major dramatic works recently--his opera Xerxes at Opera San José two weeks ago and the oratorio Israel in Egypt, presented by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra Wednesday evening at First Methodist Church in Palo Alto--my druthers go to the latter. It's interesting that neither work was well-liked in Handel's day, and yet they've both fared well this century.

In the case of Israel in Egypt, the disfavor it engendered from Handel's contemporaries seemed puzzling after experiencing Philharmonia Baroque's potent rendering. It is a score of ravishing virtues, a largely choral enterprise in three parts, with a garnish of five vocal soloists--and it exemplifies the composer's theatrical panache to the utmost.

What Israel in Egypt lacks in terms of interactive dramas between soloists, Handel made up for with musical invention. Shrewd plotting of movements carries the 2-1/2-hour piece forward with a sense of fluid inevitability. Resonant plays of tempi, tonality, dynamics and density benefit from a wellspring of nimble accompaniments that provide ongoing refreshment from the work's staid narrative. Except for the central movement's vivid depictions of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, the oratorio is laden with ceremony.

The opening movement is a funeral anthem lamenting the death of Joseph. Handel had previously composed the movement in honor of Queen Caroline's passing; his single accommodation for Israel in Egypt was to change the gender of its subject. The work's final movement is as joyous as the opening is solemn. In celebration of the Red Sea's parting and their safe escape from the Egyptians, the Israelites sing the popular Song of Moses from Exodus.

Handel's craft at text adaptation is complemented by his strategic deployment of verse repetitions. The first movement, in particular, with its disparate collection of Biblical bites, gains momentum and shape from the chorus' three refrains of "How is the mighty fallen."

One could imagine feeling less than beguiled by so lengthy a trek if it were not for Music Director Nicholas McGegan's remarkable direction, as well as the fine playing of all those engaged. Such inspired complicity is too rarely encountered in the South Bay. That the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra has taken to touring as far south as Palo Alto is to our great advantage.

THE PERFORMANCE was accountable to 18th-century performance practices yet imbued with passion. McGegan wrung every drop of theatrical juice from Handel's score, his entire body into it, but economically so, without a hint of histrionics. Attentions to tempo relationships, rhythmic design and dynamics brought the work's dramatic impetus to the fore.

Silence played an unusually momentous role in the performance. McGegan's articulate delineation of pauses and segues between movements gave breath to the work; he knew just when and how much to hold back--likewise, when to run the red, no holds barred.

Punctuation was appreciably observed through emphatic underpinning of bass movement, sometimes shared between basses, cellos, organ and contrabassoon. The drone accompanying the lyrics "still as a stone" in Part III pulled like gravity beneath the chorus' flowing lines of "till thy people pass over." Such glories were in abundance throughout.

John Butt's exemplary preparation of the Philharmonia Chorale--not to mention his fine organ and harpsichord playing--left nothing to be desired. The chorus' diction was fastidious, and like the orchestra, their blends were truly euphonic.

The soloists' contributions were sturdy, if not always sterling. Countertenor Daniel Taylor's dulcet instrument was savory in solo but, like the recorders in Part II, buried in blends. Tenor Rufus Müller was oft featured, and his voice predominated during ensemble episodes. Soprano Judith Nelson carried, but thinly, and bass Peter Klaveness' support from below was crisply delivered. Soprano Jennifer Green and bass David Tigner joined in for the third section, but their booming operatic style opposed the Baroque mannerisms that otherwise prevailed throughout the performance.

Philharmonia Baroque and Marion Verbruggen will perform Baroque recorder works by Telemann, Vivaldi, Locatelli and Sammartini Oct. 16 at 8pm at First Methodist Church, Hamilton and Webster streets, Palo Alto. $25­$35. (415/392-4400)

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From the October 3-9, 1996 issue of Metro

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