Nigel Williams

Israel in Egypt asks a lot of its chorus. I counted twenty-eight choruses, nineteen in eight parts. On this night, Epsom Choral Society had the measure of it, performing with a confidence that explained how this work, in its Victorian heyday, enjoyed greater popularity even than Messiah.

Julian's back!!

In his programme notes, Jon Pullinger promised us the full panoply. The delivery never flagged. Somewhat under-used soprano Josephine Goddard began the final Sing ye to the Lord in full war cry but neither orchestra nor chorus, who in rehearsal and concert had been on stage for close to four hours by then, refused to be outdone. Choral Society’s sopranos could still carry a consistently high phrase and, unlike the horse and his rider, refused to be drowned by timpani and trombones.

It was Handel’s choice not to give Josephine Goddard more to do. Her single duet, The Lord is my strength and my song, sung with Catriona Hewitson, showed that she could add lyricism and sensitive tone-matching to the martial drama of the finale. Her duet partner was given an air to herself: Thou didst blow with the wind, which was brief but virtuoso. Ranging from an upper B flat to a lower E flat and full of seventh and octave leaps, she projected it with minimal vibrato and never a hint that this music might be difficult.

Beth Moxon had a little more to do, including introducing the first chorus. With only a few chances to impress, it would be tempting to overdo the volume. Instead, she measured And the children of Israel sighed with delicacy. Choral Society picked up on that. First the altos and sopranos, then sopranos and tenors, then the whole choir sang their entries with the same spirit: the restraint and refinement made for a moment of true beauty. Her duet with tenor Dominic Bevan and her solo Thou shalt bring them in were sung with flexible delicacy. If Handel’s line demanded tricky rhythmic skips before a long, held note, it sounded perfectly natural, with an engaging shape to each longer note.

Other movements were introduced by Dominic Bevan. I would gladly have heard more of his recitative, which was guided always by the text with the music just forming naturally around it. Once or twice the orchestra, cellos especially, felt as if it might choose a different tempo from the soloists. When the words were "I will pursue, I will overtake", that may have been intentional. In any case, ensemble gets harder when soloists have to face away from the conductor.

The duet The Lord is a man of war between basses Kieran Rayner and Timothy Edlin showed the Regent Sinfonia at their best. Despite small stylistic differences – Edlin with a shade more vibrato – they blended well, even synchronizing their rolled "r’s" in the word "drowned" and matching their athletic descending runs over an octave or more. During the singers’ rests, the orchestra shone. Thirds between upper strings harmonized perfectly in neatly etched phrases. The bassoons and oboes picked up on the vocal phrases and matched the singers for style.

I love timpani. The Sinfonia’s player had brought a variety of sticks, so that hailstones could land with a sharp report or the Lord’s triumph could enjoy regal plumpness. Occasionally the timpani managed to steady a fugue that looked as if it might start to separate but such moments were few. Playing both organ and harpsichord was Marion Lea, Choral Society’s consummate accompanist. Always aware of what would help the singers, she kept the organ erring on the side of audible or spread a harpsichord arpeggio to remind everyone of their entry.

However, the real stars of Israel in Egypt were the chorus. Time after time, Handel demanded exposed fugal entries, or eight-part chords direct from the previous movement, or long stretches near the top of the register. Time after time Choral Society were equal to the demands. Seven divisi tenors deserve a special mention, managing always to be heard without ever sounding forced. Altos seized their chance to show they could do fast semiquavers in With the blast of thy nostrils. They demonstrated dainty quick upbeats in He sent a thick darkness, which the other parts then emulated. At The depths have covered them, basses dropped solidly to the final "stone", displaying a compass of two whole octaves. At the defining point, He rebuked the Red Sea, the full chorus was challenged to sing the movement from memory: eight parts, whole phrases without orchestra, deserving the audience’s full attention.

Once or twice, a semiquaver run felt slightly faster than comfortable. Only once did the ensemble drift apart for a few bars after one part had sung a slow rhythm a bit too slowly. Julian Collings stood a bit straighter, his beat became temporarily four-square and enough key singers were watching and following so that each subsequent entry was back in its rightful place.

These moments were exceptions and came only at the trickiest parts of what is, after all, difficult music. More importantly, the performance never lost its sparkle, its drama or its power. The whole promised panoply of effects that Handel requested was adeptly provided by a chorus that had clearly taken this work to their hearts.

Before Christmas, I was myself expecting to sing Israel in Egypt this term. I belong to a London choir that had it on the programme but had to change plan, possibly because they could not get hold of the scores. If the real reason was that Epsom Choral Society had all the copies going, then I need have no regrets. They were in very good hands.

[Nigel Williams is a bass in St Martin's Church Choir, Epsom, and married to Helen, their regular liturgical composer. He wrote on Vaughan Williams for the school book What Your Year 6 Child Needs to Know. He tweets as @ChoralCanossa.]

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