MUSIC REVIEW : Gardiner Gets the Upper Hand on Handel's 'Israel in Egypt'

Times Music Writer

Between concerts in Kansas City, Mo., and the Sydney Opera House in Australia, John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists made only one stop. Saturday night, at the Ambassador Auditorium, these touring forces--61 musicians, plus conductor Gardiner--brought Handel's oratorio, "Israel in Egypt," to Pasadena.

This long-awaited arrival of the much-recorded British musicians was greeted by the loud huzzahs of a sold-out audience in the 1,200-seat hall--a greeting subsequently justified in a touching and expert performance of Handel's wondrous, unique score.

"Israel in Egypt" is uncharacteristic in that the chorus dominates the musical foreground and vocal solos are few--and here sung from within the vocal ensemble. Yet the power of the work, written in 1738-39, resides in the brilliant variety of choral narration and in the composer's unflagging use of imagination in retelling the story of Exodus--with the inspired addition of three Psalms.

Conducting from memory, Gardiner, who founded the two ensembles 25 and 21 years ago, respectively, imposed no willful or eccentric touches on the Handelian landscape, but merely kept the text and music in steady and forward motion.

Using period instruments in the orchestra, and male (rather than female) altos in the choir, Gardiner chose not to exaggerate the work's abundant color and description--which need no underlining--but to connect with thinking the musical arch of the total. As a result, the story emerged naturally, and the performance seemed short.

Gentle attacks, quiet releases and gentle understatement marked the contributions of all participants--the 28 singers, 33 instrumentalists and a handful of soloists--yet words emerged clearly and instrumental mumbling also never occurred. Yet, as led by the 45-year old Gardiner, this was not a bland performance, only one that had the authority of being unself-conscious and unfailingly directional.

In a short evening of delectable moments, several stand out: the "Hailstone" chorus and the subsequent, extended, bucolic apostrophe on the words, "He led them forth like sheep." The rhetorical pause after the first word of "He rebuked the Red Sea," and the following choral evocation of aridity in, "and it was dried up."

Then, the serenity of soloists Suzanne Flowers and Carol Hall in the duet, "The Lord is my strength and my song." The unforced virility of Paul Tindall's singing of the tenor aria, "The enemy said: I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil."

Also, the simple sweetness evoked in the alto and tenor duet, as sung by Jonathan Peter Kenny and Philip Salmon, "Thou in Thy mercy." Last, but most effective, the sense of long-term redemption found in the final choruses, ending "I will sing unto the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously."

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