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Israel in Egypt (according to the SCO Chorus)

14 Nov 2022

News Story

If ever you hear a choral singer complain about not having enough to do in a concert, they could well be thinking - rather wistfully - of that time they sang Israel in Egypt.

In most oratorios (not just Handel's), the chorus generally sings somewhere from a quarter to a third of the music, with the soloists getting the lion’s share between them. The roles are very much reversed in Israel in Egypt, so it seems only right to ask the SCO Chorus for their thoughts on the work. What makes it such a great piece?

The so-called Plague Choruses are universally loved by choirs: they form an incredibly vivid sequence of movements, with the orchestral writing only adding to the sense of drama. As thrilling as these are, however, one alto highlights the way their "exuberant progress" is stopped short by the "sticky, treacly, deeply dark blanket" of 'He sent a thick darkness'. As she puts it, it's a poignant moment which "never fails to give [her] a shiver or two."

One of the sopranos has a similar reaction, later in the work, to the "spine-tingling" harmonies which open 'And in the greatness of Thine excellency". (She goes on to describe these as "Handel at his funkiest", which is quite an eye-opener.)

For another soprano, it all adds up to a tale of trauma, the first half’s “adrenaline-filled rollercoaster” giving way to a mass of contradictory emotions in the second, among them "that the God who killed the Egyptian army is our God is more than a little terrifying". Later, 'The people shall hear' takes words that are "threatening and menacing", only to set them to music "full of ambivalence and aching pathos".

I think I’ve found my favourite chorus in rehearsal. And then we sing another chorus, and that’s my favourite chorus. And suddenly I’m needing to recalibrate the scale.

An SCO Chorus alto basks in indecision

On the more intimate side, one of the altos is very taken with the aria 'Thou shalt bring them in': it's the kind of "very simple but utterly lovely melody" at which Handel excels, with a "little, fluttering descending phrase, so full of light and joy" in the strings that's particularly worth listening out for.

For the basses, it's (understandably) all about the bass duet 'The Lord is a man of war'. Greg Batsleer himself, the SCO's Chorus Director, longs to perform it with his friend Ashley Riches (coincidentally one of the concert's soloists), while for one of the Chorus basses, it's a thing of precious nostalgia - it was the last piece he sang with his Uncle Jimmy, a great friend and mentor who would have loved to have seen his protégé on stage next month.

At heart, Israel in Egypt is quite simply very enjoyable to perform, and the Chorus' enthusiasm is infectious. For one singer, 'And with the blast of Thy nostrils' "sounds just like the most wonderful sneeze and is so delightful to sing!" Another asserts that "there is no greater master of double choir writing than Handel", recommending the "electrifying opening" of Moses' Song, "as exhilarating to listen to as it is to sing."

It's difficult to disagree, but be warned: this movement's closing line about the horse and his rider is the very definition of an earworm. The reprise of this chorus at the very end is likely to leave it galloping around your head for quite a while afterwards!

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