Written in 1739, Handel’s Israel in Egypt is an oratorio that did not enjoy instant success, because audiences at the time were expecting the symmetry of recitative – aria – chorus (as can be heard in his ever popular Messiah) rather than what is presented in the oratorio performed by the Chichester Singers in Chichester Cathedral. Israel in Egypt has just four recitatives, five arias (the concluding one with chorus), one duet, with the rest of the work being given to chorus.
It was certainly a piece that showed the Chichester Singers at their very best. From the ethereal beauty of Handel’s setting of He sent a thick darkness over the land, even darkness which might be felt to the florid writing of He led them through the deep as through a wilderness, Jonathan Willcocks coaxed a sound that was assured at all times. They gave the impression that this oratorio must have been as fun to learn in rehearsal as it was to perform in the generous acoustic of Chichester Cathedral.
Soloists were exemplary. Soprano Christina Gansch had to wait until well into the second half until she got her chance to show her beauty of sound. She was particularly assured in the upper register of her voice, although there was a tendency for her to be slightly swamped by the orchestra in lower registers.
Contralto Angharad Lyddon had a richness of tone that shone particularly in her aria Thou shalt bring them in. Her beauty of tone was a joy to hear.
Tenor Oliver Johnston’s brightness of sound with excellent diction throughout was well suited to Handel’s music, most notably in The enemy said, I will pursue.
Southern Pro Musica’s playing was superb. Virtuosic string writing was handled with ease, woodwind were well blended, brass and timpani filled the Cathedral with triumphant fanfares, and continuo playing was always assured.