Review: Ilkley & Otley Choral Societies sing Handel’s Israel in Egypt 

St Margaret’s Church, Ilkley    

Saturday 14th March 2020

Following their successful performance of Haydn’s Creation last year, Ilkley and Otley Choral Societies under their new permanent conductor, Jennifer Sterling, made an adventurous choice to perform Handel’s equally challenging Israel in Egypt at St Margaret’s Church on Saturday night. This, the second of Handel’s London oratorios, is unusually dependent on the chorus, which is involved in three-quarters of the numbers, a full half of which are scored for double chorus, ie are in eight parts. This makes it a challenge for any choral society to relish and is especially appropriate, as here, for the joint forces of two societies. However there is always the danger that splitting each part can also cruelly expose any weaknesses.

It was clear that the choirs had been well rehearsed. The two dark and solemn choruses – ‘he sent a thick darkness’ and ‘the depths have covered them’ were brought off well. There were also some great passages of rhythmic excitement in the opening and closing choruses of Part II, particularly with the phrase ‘the horse and his rider’, as well as in the plague choruses in Part I. The basses were strong throughout and the sopranos, despite occasional problems of intonation, made a good impression however the inner parts, particularly when singing alone, were less impressive and I missed the bright balanced choral sound of which this group is capable.

The tenor, Philip O’Connor, presented his recitatives well and the two baritones made a sound job of their striking duet, ’The Lord is a man of war’, though I preferred the more focused tone of Graham McCusker. There were three excellent soprano soloists although I question the wisdom of using a mezzo soprano instead of a male alto for the alto music. This led to a lack of balance in the tenor/alto duet although Jessica Conway came into her own in the following solo, ‘Thou shalt bring them in’.

The chorus and soloists were supported on this occasion by the Yorkshire Chamber Ensemble, led by Sally Robinson and comprising strings, wind and notably two trumpets, three trombones and timpani. They produced a wonderful sound throughout, the strings particularly agile as both frogs and flies in the plague choruses and the trombones adding a sumptuous richness to the bass sound. Balance between chorus and orchestra was always excellent. Robert Sudall at the electronic keyboard ably supplied a continuo of both harpsichord and organ together with the cello of Martin Cousins.

Overall this was an enjoyable performance of a rarely heard work and one which was received with enormous enthusiasm by a very supportive audience.   

Reviewed by Chris Skidmore                                                                                                                    

Review: Ilkley and Otley Choral Societies ‘We will remember them’, Saturday 10th November, 2018

AT a time when the nation is observing the centenary marking the end of the First World War, Ilkley and Otley Choral Societies chose, as their main items for performance, two significant and appropriate works for their concert in St. Margaret’s Church, Ilkley. Haydn’s ‘Mass in time of war’ was written in 1786 when the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was suffering heavy defeats by the French under General Bonaparte. As a marked contrast to this, Elgar’s ‘The Spirit of England’ expresses, through its texts by the poet Laurence Binyon, the anguish and sufferings of war. The chosen programme, then, presented quite a difficult challenge and it was obvious that everyone had worked extremely hard in rehearsal under the guidance of their talented young conductor, Yonni Levy to produce an absorbing evening of music. The soloists Kimberley Raw (soprano), Heather Lowe (mezzo), Matt Mears (tenor) and Neil Balfour (baritone), all appearing courtesy of the RNCM, added quality and thoughtful performances. To achieve variety, and to give chorus members a well-deserved break, the main choral offerings were interspersed with individual items from the soloists and moving readings appropriate for the occasion, by Romany Branston, only just into her teens. The programme began with the well-known choral setting of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’. Perhaps here, there was too much for the listener to take on board, since we had a narration over the choral sounds which were in turn accompanied on the organ. The performance of ‘The Spirit of England’ with its wide range of dynamics and a deep commentary on the emotions of war was always compelling, though the integration of the timbre of the soprano soloist with the chorus could, at times, have been more finely balanced. The composition of masses was one of Haydn’s main duties when he was employed under the patronage of Prince Esterhazy in Vienna and his ’Mass in the time of war’ was surely among his masterpieces. Yoni Levy’s attention to tempi and dynamics always kept the chorus on their toes and the audience compellingly entertained. Signs of tiredness and associated intonation problems occasionally were evident but this was not to detract from the overall musical experience. by Nigel Duce * Ilkley and Otley Choral Societies are pictured at St Margaret’s Church, Ilkley on Saturday, November 10. Photo by Robin Stubbs
Close Menu