Princeton Pro Musica took a musical journey back to the world of George Frideric Handel this past weekend with a concert which was historically accurate, both in instrumentation and presentation.
Presented Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, Pro Musica’s performance of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt was not programmed on the most spring-like of Mother’s Day themes (unless Mom is interested in plagues, pestilence and frogs), but the clarity of the performance and the orchestral music performed along with the oratorio certainly evoked the sprightliness of the season.
Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau programmed the concert to recreate a performance of Handel’s time, in which the two halves of the oratorio would be separated by an orchestral work, usually one of Handel’s own concertos. Israel in Egypt was first performed in 1739, and its oratorio form was a natural outgrowth of Handel’s very successful career as a composer of opera. This oratorio draws its text principally from the Old Testament’s book Exodus, with the chorus principally carrying the action of hailstones, darkness, and the smiting of the firstborn in the first part. Accompanied by a period instrument orchestra, the singers of Pro Musica began with a well-unified choral sound, especially showing how the men’s sections have developed under Dr. Brandau’s leadership. The eight-part opening chorus had a good choral foundation in the bass sections, with a tenor section which has also developed impressively over the past few years. The sectional soprano sound started off a bit fuzzy, but certainly cleaned up as the piece went on.
There were two small solos in the first part, as the chorus was joined by mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney and tenor James Kennerley. Mr. Kennerley showed himself throughout the performance to be especially expert at recitative, telling the story well and balancing Ms. Maroney’s elegant singing well in their second part duet. Ms. Maroney had a tough job with the register of the alto solos (these solos are often sung by a counter-tenor), but presented smooth melodic lines and especially nice ornamentation as well as adeptly-handled runs.
Handel’s oratorios tend to be on the long side, and different conductors cut different things, depending on their taste. Dr. Brandau reversed the performing focus in the second part, allowing a number of solo and duet movements to flow together without choral interruption. Soprano soloists Melanie Russell and Sarah Brailey were well-matched, with Ms. Brailey showing an especially rich sound which rang with bell-like quality in the upper register. Ms. Russell added the icing on the vocal cake with a lighter sound, and the two colors blended together particularly well in a duet for two sopranos of equal register.
In “The Lord is a man of war” Handel may have composed the only duet for two basses in oratorio repertory, and Mr. Brandau brought together two bass-baritones who often sang the same musical passages in succession but with different vocal textures (Handel often composed for forces on hand — there must have been some great basses in early 18th-century London). Accompanied by a lithe pair of oboes in Priscilla Jerreid and Geoffrey Burgess, Christopher Dylan Herbert climbed well into the higher register of the duet, while Jonathan Woody demonstrated the richer and more defiant sound — when he sang of Pharaoh’s chosen captains, also drowned, one was certainly convinced that they drowned.
The interpolated Concerto Grosso in G Major proved to be a good contrast against the dark nature of the oratorio. The five movements flowed together well, and the string orchestra, accompanied by harpsichordist Raphael Fusco, played with a consistently light and clean touch. Suspensions between the two violin sections blended well, and the solo trio of violinists Owen Dalby and Nanae Iwata, joined by cellist Katie Rietman, provided seamless contrasting textures.
For those curious about how Dr. Brandau has developed Pro Musica’s trademark choral sound, the “horse and his rider” choruses were worth the price of admission. Dr. Brandau took these two closing choruses like the wind, and the singers of Pro Musica did not miss a note in the choral coloratura, bringing the work to a typically Baroque glorious close. This oratorio may have been a handful for a choral singer, but the members of Pro Musica never let on that they were anything less than ready for more.