Handel Buffs Have Their Moment With A Pair Of Stylish Choral Concerts

Jeannette Sorrell led the New York Philharmonic and Apollo’s Singers in Handel’s ‘Israel in Egypt’ at Geffen Hall. (Photos by Chris Lee)

NEW YORK — This city’s quite substantial and regularly under-served Handelian audience (a band different from die-hard Wagnerians but equally faithful) had the chance to enjoy two of the composer’s remarkable choral works before the annual Messiah glut crowds out almost everything else. Following Jeannette Sorrell’s highly theatrical 2021 Messiah performances at Riverside Church, the New York Philharmonic sagely invited the Cleveland-based conductor back to perform her edition of Israel in Egypt in Geffen Hall on Oct. 25. The next night, Carnegie Hall enjoyed one of the works John Eliot Gardiner’s storied English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir are offering on its Gardiner-free world tour: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato

The two pieces stem from 1739 and 1740, respectively, when Handel’s success in London with Italian operas fell off precipitously due to a rival troupe’s intense competition. A wealth of English-language concert works followed. Some are barely disguised theatrical entities with named characters that companies often stage nowadays, like 1739’s Saul.

The two New York just heard have a predominantly choral orientation, with solos and duets (always as welcome in Handel as they are rare) from unnamed sources quoting Biblical text (as in Israel in Egypt) or literary adaptation (as in the largely Milton-based L’Allegro). Handel had worked in this latter, more philosophical mode before, with 1736’s Dryden adaptation Alexander’s Feast. As always with this brilliantly self-thieving composer, one hears echoes — structural, harmonic, and in orchestration — of such previous scores, as well as the even earlier, amorous-themed Italian cantatas, in the later works, however sacred or profoundly ruminative.

In addition, Handel constantly revised his works with an eye toward what vocal and orchestral forces he had at hand and what would “play” best in given circumstances. There are few fixed editions; plus, the Romantic concept of immutable masterpieces that no one should dare tamper with lay a century in the future. Sorrell restored elements of Handel’s original First Part of Israel in Egypt, given over to lamentations on the death of Joseph. She rightly argues that the oratorio’s later upbeat recounting of the plagues God visited on the oppressive Pharaoh and his people and — at the best of times, which this is not — the obsessively repeated rephrasing of the Egyptians having drowned in the Red Sea can only be balanced by the Israelites’ initial devastation. Sorrell’s edition held together better than those I’ve previously encountered.

With L’Allegro, too, Handel authorized various texts, including excising the unbalanced third section, not based on Milton. The edition performed by the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir gracefully laid out the personality types and tropes the music and poetry express. This pastoral ode collided with less-shattering but still disturbing headlines: The famously irascible Gardiner recently struck a bass soloist during a concert and withdrew from performance for a year for his “mental health.” His young associate Dinis Sousa fared well, obtaining a cogent, able reading. L’Allegro has enjoyed renewed interest in recent decades, due partly to Gardiner’s championing but even more to Mark Morris’ brilliant staging, premiered in Brussels in 1988. This has been seen around the world, including locally at BAM from 1990 onwards and at the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater). Carnegie’s last performance of the work was in November 1895, by the Oratorio Society of New York (a still-active part of the city’s musical life).

Dinis Sousa conducted the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, here with soprano Hilary Cronin, in Handel’s ‘L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato’ at Carnegie Hall.

Both conductors commanded exceptional choruses. Sorrell brought along her scrupulously trained Apollo’s Singers, part of her Cleveland-based ensemble Apollo’s Fire, always a delight and actually more precise of diction than the phenomenal but sometimes rather consonant-homogenizing Monteverdi Choir. In both cases, the soloists (all well-versed in current Handelian style, though full-out trills were in short supply among Sousa’s personnel) sang with the chorus when not coming forward for their individual numbers. The exception in real trills was Hilary Cronin. One of those pure British soprano voices with both a shining, rounded timbre and the ability to limit vibrato (like Margaret Marshall and Lynne Dawson), Cronin delighted in all of her numbers. She also made meaningful contact with her texts, a trait shared by the unshowy but impressive alto Bethany Horak-Hallett, with a mellow timbre and sovereign musicality.

Both tenors (Jonathan Hanley and Nick Pritchard) showed considerable style and less tone than the big hall demanded. Hanley shone (and articulated) more in the melancholy “Let me wander sight unseen” than in the heartily Purcellian “Haste thee, nymph.” Pritchard — with a slim, ductile sound ideal for Bach’s Evangelists — gave his numbers touches of the Oxbridge undergraduate archness that has sometimes plagued Gardiner’s endeavors (William Christie and René Jacobs have their own forms of H.I.P. shtick): catnip to acolytes, off-putting to others.

Countertenor Cody Bowers was the relative ham in Israel in Egypt, so happy to share his fine high register and frog- and cattle-laden text with us that he nearly levitated off the stage. Tenor Jacob Perry’s crystalline diction and fine breath control graced both recitatives and cantilena passages; Edward Vogel’s mellow baritone and Sonya Headlam’s warm, soft-grained soprano made welcome contributions. But the bright, springwater clarity of Amanda Forsythe’s nimble soprano stole the show, as it tends to when she takes the stage. Forsythe alone didn’t trip over the one musical feature I found questionable in Sorrell’s approach here (though it worked well enough in her deliberately operatic Messiah): encouraging soloists to insert cadential high notes, almost evoking 1970s Donizetti practice.

What stood out in L’Allegro — surely a tribute to Gardiner’s years of preparation and training as well as to Sousa’s capable stewardship — was the ease and fluency with which the instrumentalists and vocalists interacted. The English Baroque Soloists’ weakness-free orchestral playing was naturally enough more stylistically nuanced than the Philharmonic’s, sonorous though they had been. All the English Baroque Soloists’ obbligato passages were nicely turned, some of them with striking coloration. In accompanying seasoned bass Frederick Long’s rollicking “Mirth, admit me of thy crew,” Anneke Scott fared far better with the Baroque horn than most players of this often treacherous-to-pitch instrument. The famous avian-imitating “Sweet Bird” has led a separate concert life from its context here, with Carnegie logging performances by coloraturas from Nellie Melba through Roberta Peters and Lisa Saffer.

Flutist Rachel Beckett proved an equal partner — maybe more — to the genial, generally capable and staccato-adept soprano Samantha Clarke in negotiating its delights. First violin section leader Kati Debretzeni, outstanding throughout, provided the evocation of Orpheus charming open Hades’ gates in “But oh, sad Virgin,” accompanying and mirroring Clarke’s well-placed skips. All the trumpet and oboe contributions proved outstandingly voiced. Robert Kendell furnished refreshing timpani interventions, including the delightful chimes in “Or let the merry bells ring round.” The soloist here, Alison Ponsford-Hill, had the least substantial timbre among the sopranos but was musically poised and appealing, with a light instrument suitable for Handel’s more soubrettish seconda donna roles — like Orlando‘s Dorinda.

Philadelphia’s Curtis Opera Theatre stages L’Allegro Nov. 10 and 12 under Nicholas McGegan, another seminal figure in popularizing Handel’s lesser-known oeuvre. Expect a different sound world as Leon Botstein’s American Symphony Orchestra brings another Old Testament story of conflict — through the lens of Scotland’s murderous rout by England at Culloden — to Riverside Church on Dec. 14: Judas Maccabeus (1746), with strong, definitely operatic soloists led by rising tenor Jack Swanson.