Händel - Israel in Egypt - Oxford Early Music Festival

Oxford Early Music festival put on a concert of Georg Frederic Händel’s ‘Israel in Egypt’ on Friday 13th of May 2016 in the University of Oxford’s first official building, the University Church. The International Baroque Players joined a fantastic line-up of soloists: Emma Kirkby (soprano), Robyn Allegra Parton (soprano), Robin Blaze (countertenor), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), Jonathan Arnold (bass) and Brian McAlea (bass).


Daniel Hyde conducted the performance with great leadership. The choir 'Ensemble 45' sang with absolute clarity and exceptional agility. I played in a early brass section with fellow natural trumpeter Will Russell, with three excellent sackbutt players: Phil Dale, Tom Lees and Adrian France. It was a real pleasure to play within this section. The performance was bright and vibrant and it sounded wonderful in the generous and focused acoustic of the University Church.

Scott Bolohan wrote a review of the performance for Oxford’s Daily Info:

“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.”

In the break between the rehearsal and the performance, there was ample time to visit three of Oxford’s gems: The Bate Collection of Instruments, the Ashmolean Museum and Christ Church Library - the latter I had never visited before.

Will Russell and I went to visit the University of Oxford's Bate Collection of Instruments. One of the interesting trumpets in this collection is the Simon Beale trumpet from 1666. Beale was state trumpeter to Oliver Cromwell and later Charles II. The construction of the trumpet is typically English and suggests a possible collaboration between Beale and the celebrated English maker, William Bull.


After browsing the wonderful Bate Collection, we walked a few metres up St. Aldates towards Christ Church and managed to find the tourist entrance to Christ Church Cathedral. At the entrance, I explained that I was hoping to see the two cornetti in the Christ Church Library. After some further explanation about cornetti, the kind Italian porter personally admitted us and escorted us to the library. We felt like honoured guests there and I was totally in my element to be able to see these instruments for the first time.

In this magnificent room, we observed the cornetti as well as a collection of manuscripts and original prints - including a rare second edition of Claudio Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’, printed in Venice by Ricciardo Amadino in 1615. It was displayed open upon the 'Possente spirto' page, where the cornetti accompaniment feature was clearly visible (pictured only partially on the far left of the image below).


We were fortunate enough to be in the library at the same time as Dr. John Milsom, who was studying and speaking to a few guests about the selected manuscripts on display, which was most interesting. We also stood over the cornetti and discussed their design and remarkable condition.


The cornetti are in immaculate condition and they displayed the recognisable rabbit’s feet emblem, debossed in the leather. The instruments were purchased at a cost of £2 13s by Christ Church for the visit of King James I on the 27th of August 1605. According to a report at the time ''The King and Queen heard excellent voices mixed with instruments at a service in the cathedral'. Although almost exactly synchronous, there is no confirmed link to Monteverdi's Orfeo' (premiered in 1607) but these instruments are a representative sample of instruments from this time. To my eye at least, these instruments appear to be Italian, but this is not officially confirmed.

Before leaving the Christ Church Library, we noticed a decorative plaster casting on the wall displaying what is clearly an English-style trumpet.


Later, we visited the Ashmolean Museum in the hope of seeing the silver William Bull trumpet. Sadly, this instrument did not seem to be out on display and we were under the constraint of time. We did take the opportunity to visit the Musical Instrument Gallery to view the string instruments - most notably, Antonio Stradivari’s Violin “The Messiah”, which is assumed to be the only Stradivarius in existence in an ’as new’ condition.


It is always a great pleasure to be in Oxford and it was fantastic to be able to visit these exhibitions in such close proximity. The concert was very enjoyable and it was great to perform with an ensemble that combined exquisite playing with so many wonderful people, and in such great surroundings.  Congratulations to all at the Oxford Early Music Festival. They have done a truly remarkable job in promoting this festival and gaining a significant following since their inaugural season in 2013.

Russell Gilmour
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writing on music, photography, engraving, travel and life as a freelance professional musician.