Handel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt” premiered at the King’s Theatre in London’s Haymarket on April 4, 1739. The performance was not a success. Unlike his “Saul,” which had premiered at the King’s in January, “Israel in Egypt” was a predominantly choral work about a people; set to biblical verses drawn mostly from Exodus and the Psalms, it had few arias and no individual drama. For the two subsequent performances that season, Handel deleted the opening 30-minute lamentation and added arias; for the 1756 revival, he completely redid Part One, drawing on his oratorio “Solomon,” his “Occasional Oratorio,” and his “Anthem for the Peace.”
All the same, “Israel in Egypt” didn’t achieve real popularity till it was taken up by 19th-century choral groups like the Handel and Haydn Society. In 1815, the duet “The Lord is a man of war” and the chorus “He gave them hailstones for rain” appeared on Handel and Haydn’s inaugural concert program, and in 1859, Handel and Haydn gave the Boston premiere. As in 1739, the oratorio did not get an enthusiastic reception. Writing for the Boston Courier, John S. Dwight observed that “after eight more rehearsals, the giant Handel’s greatest work, with the sole exception of the Messiah — commonly ranking as equal of that — was offered to the public and the public would not have it.”
Handel and Haydn has persevered, however, giving three performances of “Israel in Egypt” as recently as 2011. For the opening program of the society’s 209th consecutive season, new artistic director Jonathan Cohen has chosen a version of the 1756 revival. It’s a bit of an odd duck. The original, almost entirely choral Part One mourns the death of Joseph and the accession of a new Pharaoh who is not favorably disposed toward the Israelites. The 1756 Part One, mostly recitatives and airs, is on the same musical level, but the new text, despite one judicious insertion of the name Joseph, has nothing to do with Israel’s plight. It reads like the celebratory first scene from “Solomon” — which in fact it mostly is.
Part Two enumerates the plagues that fell on Egypt; Part Three, set to Exodus 15:1-21, is Moses’s song of thanksgiving for Israel’s deliverance. These sections may be short on solo pyrotechnics, but they’re a riot of color, character, and rhythm. Handel revels in his depiction of frogs, blotches and blisters, lice and locusts, fire and hailstones, thick darkness, and he uses every choral texture in the book, from fugal polyphony to declamatory homophony.
At Symphony Hall Friday, Cohen had an orchestra of 35 (first and second violins deployed antiphonally) and a chorus of 34, from whom all 13 soloists were drawn. He conducted from the harpsichord, bouncing on his feet when standing, bouncing even when seated.
My initial reservations about the 1756 Part One disappeared faster than Pharaoh’s men and horses in the Red Sea. The opening chorus, “Your harps and cymbals sound,” was alert but not rushed. “The Lord hath given strength unto his people” was serene and sublime; in triple time, it practically waltzed. “O God, our strength, sing loud and clear” had strength without strain; so did the superb trumpet (Steven Marquardt) and oboe (Debra Nagy) duet and baritone Woodrow Bynum’s heroic accompanying solo. Tenor Steven Soph brought to “Sacred raptures cheer my breast” a rugged resonance and intelligent phrasing; soprano Teresa Wakim was sweet and elegant at the beginning of “What though I trace each herb and flow’r” and then full and unforced at the top of her range, with a knowing pause for the line “Did I not own Jehovah’s pow’r.”
The rest of the evening was equally rewarding. Tenor Jonas Budris gave his two recitatives a Moses-like authority without so much as a glance at his score. Mezzo Katherine Growdon surged and soared in the lilting siciliana of “And the children of Israel sighed”; countertenor Douglas Dodson rejoiced in the leaping frogs and the way “blotches and blains broke forth on man and beast.” Trumpets and timpani rained down hailstones and fire; the chorus answered with a palpable “He sent a thick darkness”; strings and trombones “smote” the first-born of Egypt; and then the chorus frolicked like lambs in “he led them forth like sheep.” Part Three brought nuanced characterizations from tenors Steven Wilson and Gene Stenger and an airy purity from soprano Sarah Yanovitch Vitale, plus soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad at her glorious best in “Toss’d from thought to thought I rove,” an aria that Handel originally wrote for Cleopatra to sing in his “Alexander Balus.”
This was as good a performance as I can recall hearing from Handel and Haydn. By cutting some choral numbers, Cohen created a version of the oratorio in three 30-minute parts, which made for a compact evening. His pacing never sagged; everything danced without being hurried. The chorus sang with both crisp clarity and a soft sheen; the text seemed to float out. The orchestra played with easy grace. It all suggested that John S. Dwight was right: Handel’s “Israel in Egypt” is indeed the equal of his “Messiah.”
HANDEL: ISRAEL IN EGYPT
The Handel and Haydn Society Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Jonathan Cohen. At Symphony Hall, Oct. 6. Repeats Oct. 8. $15-$100. 617-262-1815,
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.