Handel: Israel in Egypt
Spitalfields Festival. La Nuova Musica
Christ Church, Spitalfields. 4 June 2015
Handel’s Israel in Egypt is a curious work at the best of times, but this performance took it to new heights of curiosity. With wholesale ‘borrowing’ from his own, and around seven other composers’ music, this doesn’t seem to be Handel at his most sincere. Amongst other oddities, he turned a wedding cantata by Stradella into a chorus about plagues. It was performed in the almost ideal acoustic of Christ Church Spitalfields (as part of the Spitalfields Festival) by La Nuova Musica, directed by their flamboyant conductor David Bates.
Not content with performing the music that Handel actually wrote, Bates saw fit to add his own theatricals to this already dramatic work. He replaced Handel’s admittedly rather odd first part (cobbled together from an earlier funeral anthem) with the Occasional Overture, a piece in startlingly inappropriate contrast to the doom and gloom of the following section, with its story of the Exodus and its related misfortunes. But it gave the first opportunity to hear some outstanding contributions from the instrumentalist, notably Leo Duarte’s gorgeous oboe solo in the Adagio. And then came the first indication that this was not going to be Handel as Handel intended. The final March was prefaced by an extraordinarily bombastic timpani solo, played, and presumably improvised, by Serge Vuille. Brilliant playing, but I have no idea why it was there.
Bates seems to have taken his clue from Handel’s use of parody, although in this case it was through frequent examples of parodying performance styles and mood. On several occasions, words and phrases were given exaggerated accents or pronunciations; not least the Monty Pythonesque versions of the words ‘flies’. It was not clear whether this was intended to show up the absurdity of the text (which concentrated on God’s habit of killing people he didn’t like), or on the (mistaken) assumption that Handel wasn’t capable of providing enough musical emphasis. No wonder many of the musicians were smiling to each other during the evening. Consonants were accented, and phrases either clipped short or wallowed in. Cadences were similarly either cut off in mid flow, or given extended rallentandos, for no apparent musical or textural reason. Cadenzas often owed more to a later musical style, notably in the bass duet ‘The Lord is a man of war’ which stepped into Benjamin Britten territory.
On top of all this was David Bates’ frankly weird style of conducting. There are a very few other conductors (only one immediately springs to mind) who point directly at their fellow musicians, but I have never seen anything quite so intimidating as this. Rather than a subtle indication of a forthcoming entry, Bates would wait until after the entry and then point, very .. er .. pointedly, at the player while they were playing. No wonder so few of them actually looked at him – it must have been very distracting for them. And, like many of his awkward-looking gestures, there seemed to be no musical logic – indeed, many of his gestures were made so low to the ground that nobody but the members of the audience in the front few rows would have seen them.
I could whitter on about conducting and performance details, but the overriding thing is that (whether despite, or because of, said conducting) this was a fine performance. The lack of a textural logic or development of characters was overtaken by some delightful arias and extravagant choruses performed by a team of young musicians on top form. Amongst the soloists, drawn from the choir, special mention should go to Esther Brazil, Zoë Brown, Alice Gribbin, Katy Hill, Rory McCleery and Thomas Herford. Perhaps not surprisingly, the orchestral leader Madelaine Easton was the focus of most of the players’ attention, and she kept things together subtly and magnificently.