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S & H Concert Review

S & H Concert Review

Handel, ‘Messiah’ Polyphony, The Academy of Ancient Music, dir. Stephen Layton. St. John’s Smith Square, 23rd December 2002 (ME)


A bit of a late review for this one, occasioned by illness: I had intended to go to Liverpool to hear a ‘traditional’ performance of this work on January 4th and then to write a piece about the differences between the two approaches, but that did not happen and I had to be content with this unusual, yet ‘authentic’ version.

As is well known, Handel himself tinkered with the score, often altering parts to suit different singers and so on, and one should probably not be too shocked to hear a ‘new’ version of the work, but on this occasion I did find it surprising that Stephen Layton had decided to make the changes he did – he cut certain parts (such as the duet for tenor and alto, ‘O death where is thy victory’) and when this sort of thing is done, one assumes the reason is brevity; however, this was a very slow ‘Messiah’ indeed, with some tempi so languid that things threatened to grind to a halt once or twice, and the singers experienced a little difficulty with sustaining their lines. Nevertheless, this was as engaging, beautifully played and sung a ‘Messiah’ as you could possibly hope to hear.

The 26 – voice Polyphony may not exactly be Shaw’s desired ‘choir of heathens,’ but they certainly do attack the choruses with ‘unembarrassed sincerity of dramatic expression.’ This is a very special, highly individual choir, with its warmth, sheen, clean attack and direct phrasing, and heard to greatest advantage in parts such as ‘Their sound is gone out’ and ‘Worthy is the Lamb,’ where the texture is so smooth and the enunciation so crisp that it’s hard to imagine more ideal singing. A similar level of precision was evident in the playing, by the Academy of Ancient Music, apart from one or two instances of rather squally continuo, with the strings producing some especially glowing moments during ‘And the glory of the Lord.’

The four soloists were amongst the most eminent of current Handel singers, with Michael Chance probably the pick of them. Given Layton’s re-arrangements it felt rather fortunate that ‘But who may abide’ had not been assigned to another singer, since it was sung with the sort of poise and confident virtuosity that reminds you exactly why Handel rewrote it to show off the voice of his male alto, Guadagni. ‘O thou that tellest’ was a little thinner in tone here and there, but still wonderfully fluent and dramatic, and Chance even managed to sing ‘He was despised’ in a genuinely moving way despite having to adopt so slow a tempo that it was almost funereal.

David Wilson’s bass displayed his customary confidence and dramatic power, although I would have liked a little more fire in ‘The trumpet shall sound.’ Gillian Keith was the very fine soprano soloist; she sings very sweetly, rather in the manner of Emma Kirkby, but the tone of her lower register lacks colour, and her voice seems to need darkening a little – she is currently studying with Ian Partridge and Barbara Bonney, who seem the ideal choice to guide this very promising young singer; is she also going for the Bonney look, one wonders?

James Gilchrist sings the tenor part with as much passion as he can muster, and it’s not really his fault that this isn’t a great deal, since his is a rather dry, if attractive voice, and he does not really excite you with his trills in ‘Ev’ry valley’ although he phrases his ‘Comfort ye’ s beautifully. His divisions at ‘potter’s vessel’ are secure rather than thrilling, confirming an interpretation which may neglect the theatricality of oratorio but which satisfies by its innate musicality.

These annual performances by Polyphony and the Academy at St. John’s may fall into that dubious tradition by which ‘Messiah’ is as much associated with Christmas as ‘The Nutcracker,’ but they also remind us that this great work has found here the kind of advocates of which Shaw dreamed but never heard, and even the hackneyed ‘Hallelujah’ sounded fresh and enthusiastic – as someone said, you stand up for that only because you can’t ascend to Heaven on the spot.


Melanie Eskenazi

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