During the introduction to George Frederic Handel's Israel in Egypt oratorio at St Mary's University Church, the event was introduced as the centrepiece of Oxford Early Music Festival. The oratorio tells the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, including the parting of the Red Sea and following the journey until their exultant conclusion.
As the centrepiece of the festival, a lot of the major singers specialising in early music were performing, including arguably the leading early music soprano, the fantastic Emma Kirkby alongside the breathtaking counter-tenor superstar Robin Blaze. From the beginning, the show had the feeling of witnessing something special, in large part because of their presence. Whenever they had a solo, you truly felt like you were watching performers who were the best at what they did. Adding to the experience were rising stars soprano Robyn Allegra Parton, tenor Thomas Hobbs, as well as basses Jonathan Arnold and Brian McAlea who all were not at all out of place next to such well-known talent.
First presented in London's Kings Theatre in January 1739, the oratorio was only enhanced by the medieval setting of St. Mary's, with the mood changing as the sun went down outside the church turning the dimly yet evocatively lit room into a magical space for Handel's piece. The acoustics were fantastic, the echoes of the church only added to the feel of the piece. While the individual singing performances from the likes of Kirkby and Blaze were truly memorable in showcasing their otherworldly talent, perhaps the real stars were the incredible International Baroque Players, conducted by Daniel Hyde and the choir Ensemble 45, who made the early music of Handel seem as important and grand as ever.
Hyde's directing in particular was impressive; when one of the players had to leave the stage for around five minutes during the middle of the performance, Hyde restarted the show with a thunderous 'He gave them hailstones for rain', quickly making the audience forget about the delay. And that's really how most of the night went, the performance so good that the two hours went back amazingly quickly, even while sitting in the uncomfortable wooden pews. The word unforgettable gets thrown around a lot in reviews, but in this case, in the first official building of the University of Oxford, it truly was.