Handel's `Egypt' proves to be intense and vibrant

Music review

March 27, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The enormous popularity of Handel's "Messiah" has tended, unfairly, to obscure his nearly two dozen other oratorios.

There was a time when audiences appreciated those grand scores and their mix of biblical history and piety, especially "Samson," "Judas Maccabaeus" and "Israel in Egypt." The Handel Choir of Baltimore made an effort to refocus attention on the latter Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

In some ways, "Israel in Egypt" is not an easy sell. There are remarkably few solo arias; the chorus sings the bulk of the text, limiting the variety of sonic color. And the story of the Hebrews' exodus from Egypt runs out of descriptive steam early on; after colorful bits about all the plagues, there is a lot of repetition about the Pharaoh's perishing soldiers.

A great performance, though, easily unleashes an extraordinary amount of brilliant writing for both voices and instruments. There wasn't a great performance on Sunday, but it was an earnest and vibrant one.

The large size of the Handel Choir, about 90, allowed for some powerful statements - "He spake the word," for example - but also resulted in occasional lack of clarity during the busiest pileups of melodic lines.

In much of Part One of the oratorio, the chorus made its entrances tentatively; confidence improved considerably as the concert proceeded. So did the overall blend; early on, individual voices often stuck out from the ensemble.

There were a few other shortcomings; the tenors, for example, needed more security in the upper reaches. But there were also strengths, notably the bright-toned sopranos. And in the score's most sublime moments the group sang with warmth and sensitivity.

Providing the presentation with a sizable dose of novelty was music director T. Herbert Dimmock's idea to engage area cantors as soloists. There were firm, vibrant contributions from bass Thom King. Technically, and sometimes stylistically, the other cantors sounded like fish out the Red Sea.

Tenor Emanuel Perlman initially forgot he wasn't in temple and colored his recitatives with cantorial inflections, giving Handel's notes an intriguing spice. (Those touches disappeared subsequently.) Sopranos Kim Konrad and Judy Rowland and alto Nancy Ginsberg negotiated coloratura passages uncomfortably and didn't always produce well-centered tones.

Nonetheless, all brought an effective intensity to their work and helped to convey the oratorio's deeply personal side. Additional soloist Brian Ming Chu was a sturdy partner in a duet with King.

Dimmock's conducting was not always tidy but had a good deal of momentum and dynamic expression. Despite rough patches in the violins, the orchestra fulfilled its role respectably.

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