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Monteverdi Choir shades every word in dramatic Handel oratorio

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ISRAEL IN EGYPT

By Handel.

The Monteverdi Choir and

The English Baroque Soloists.

Conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.

Presented by the Wang Celebrity Series.

Event in The Tech Performing Arts Series.

Symphony Hall, February 17.

By JONATHAN RICHMOND

There's no doubt that The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists gave a lovely performance of Handel's Israel in Egypt. It was an especially dramatic account, each word carefully shaded to subtly illustrate its meaning. The orchestra, with its well-separated voices skillfully carrying out their particular dramatic agendas, was especially colorful. Bubbly woodwinds mimicked the pestilence of "all manner of flies and lice." Super-smooth strings created an eerie effect for the arrival of the darkness "which might be felt." Pungent blasts of brass drove home the impact of the ultimate plague, and there was a sense of awed, almost choked disbelief to the choral intonation of the words "He smote all the first-born of Egypt."

The chorus showed great flexibility, their variety of tone and inflection keeping up the suspense as the story unwound. "He is my God" came across to particular effect, the contrast between the purely-defined strands that made up the ensemble's glorious polyphony producing a particularly inspired effect. At times, however, the chorus sounded muddled; words were often unclear, and this did at times detract from the impact. Members of the chorus sang the solo numbers, and for the most part they did this with distinction.

Despite the multitude of its colors, the orchestra sometimes seemed lacking in power: early music performances do aim for subtlety, rather than force, but if that is what John Eliot Gardiner wished to stress he should have performed in the more intimate Jordan Hall, rather than attempt to battle the difficult acoustics of so much of Symphony Hall.