Mendelssohn’s astonishing 1833 reconstruction of Handel’s great oratorio Israel in Egypt came about thanks to Mendelssohn’s lifetime fascination with the music of Handel. In London in 1829, the 20-year-old Mendelssohn excitedly studied sixty volumes of Handel’s music. Israel in Egypt particularly fascinated him. He saw that Handel’s manuscript contained movements not included in what was then the only available published score. Four years later, in 1833 in Düsseldorf, he performed, to great acclaim, his version of Handel’s Israel in Egypt.
That historic performance has itself now been painstakingly reconstructed from fragments and sources across Europe: and radically different it is to Handel’s 1739 score. The large and colourful orchestra play nineteenth-century instruments, producing vivid new sonorities, and including very different orchestrations. With no organ at his performance, Mendelssohn scored the continuo part into the orchestra, making especial use of a pair of clarinets. He also added a series of recitatives, accompanied by the delicious combination of two solo cellos and a double bass. There are significant changes to the order of movements, as well as new numbers. The text is sung in German, and the work starts with a thrilling, pure-Mendelssohn overture, which mixes life and energy with moments of exquisitely shifting instrumental colours.
Mendelssohn’s 1833 score was reconstructed by Robert King for performance in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Mendelssohn Festival before heading into the studio. There is fine solo singing from sopranos Lydia Teuscher and Julia Doyle, alto Hilary Summers, tenor Benjamin Hulett, and bass Roderick Williams, and striking chorus work from the large double-choir. Incorporating early nineteenth-century performing practice – bringing a notably different approach to portamento, rubato, vibrato, trills and slurring – and pitched at A=430, here is a familiar work in wholly new clothing.