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S & H Concert Review

Handel, ‘Messiah’ Polyphony, The Academy of Ancient Music, cond. Stephen Layton, Emma Kirkby, William Towers, James Gilchrist, James Rutherford. Hazard Chase Christmas Festival, St. John’s Smith Square, 23rd December 2003 (ME)


Well, here we all are again, those same rubicund faces glowing ruddily, those same cut – glass accents piercing the frosty air: it’s the December version of Our Religious Duty, of which the Easter one is attending the Bach Choir’s ‘Matthew Passion:’ yea verily I say unto you, that ye shall be saved if ye canst sit through these two ‘services’ each year in my name. No penance to do so in the present case, however: this concluding concert in a strong series comprising most of the usual suspects, was as fresh and stimulating as one has by now come to expect from Polyphony and its director – despite the aura of self-satisfaction at having done one’s duty pervading the hall.

Each time I hear this group perform this work, the interpretation is different: last year’s was striking by way of its novel matching of singer and aria, and above all for its positively lugubrious pace. This year, the assignment of arias was more conventional, and the tempo was brisk enough for me to wonder (shameless self –flattery, of course) if the conductor had actually read and heeded my remarks about the somewhat turgid 2002 performance. The overture was as sprightly as one could hope to hear, and even the Pastoral Symphony was lively rather than languid. This pacing has, of course, a marked effect on the soloists who do not have to work quite as hard as they would need to do if the work were being presented as though it were a Passion.

James Gilchrist is a stalwart of these performances: he is, of course, represented by Hazard Chase (as are Emma Kirkby and Stephen Layton) so one could hardly expect any other tenor to replace him in this context: he’s not exactly my ideal of a Handelian tenor, since his tone is on the dry side and his management of the florid passages is no more than acceptable, but he did sing ‘Comfort Ye’ quite beautifully, shaping the phrases elegantly and with more than his customary sweetness of tone. He’s clearly a very musical and committed singer but his rendition of such lines as ‘Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel’ is pleasing rather than dazzling, since he does not have quite enough agility in the technique or theatricality in the presentation to really excite the hearer. His best singing, apart from ‘Comfort Ye,’ was in the duet ‘O death, where is thy sting?’ where his voice blended finely with that of the counter-tenor.

William Towers made quite an impression on me in his ROH debut a few months ago in ‘Orlando’ when he took the part of Medoro at short notice, standing in for Bejun Mehta who in turn had replaced Alice Coote. Towers has a meltingly lovely voice, piercingly sweet and beautifully placed, but I would call him a sopranist rather than a counter-tenor, since his tone is very close to that of a soprano and resembles not at all that of singers such as Michael Chance and Andreas Scholl. This of course has an effect on the balance of a performance, since it seemed at times here that we had two sopranos: however, to my ears a higher voice is preferable to a plummy one in this music. ‘But who may abide’ was finely done, with the rapid passagework on ‘refiner’s fire’ accurately if a little tentatively presented, and ‘He was despised’ was one of the high points of the evening, lovely in both tone and phrasing.

Emma Kirkby is so well known to London audiences by now that one hardly needs to preface any remarks about her singing: you either love or hate that rather bloodless sound and that almost vibrato-less production, and I love it in such small doses as one gets in ‘Messiah.’ She sang ‘Rejoice greatly’ (for once taken as the minuet it’s meant to be) with the proper sense of joy, and her ‘How beautiful are the feet’ was smoothly and confidently performed.

James Rutherford is another young singer who has impressed me in the opera house, in his case as the bass soloist in the ENO staged version of the ‘St John Passion.’ On this occasion, he was a little muted in approach, as though he were holding back because of a cold, but this is clearly a weighty voice, with a sound technique to support it and a powerful intelligence to inform it. ‘Thus saith the Lord’ was appropriately commanding, with incisive treatment of ‘…the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in:’ and ‘The people that walked in darkness’ was sung with dramatic skill. His arias in the later parts were less successful, possibly through tiredness, since he is still relatively inexperienced: nevertheless he is a singer of great promise who will surely one day give us a ‘trumpet shall sound’ to be reckoned with.

Those trumpets sounded better than ever this year, ‘silver’ but certainly not ‘snarling,’ and the booming organ provided exactly the right sense of confident display at the closing moments of the work: continuo was as sparkling as ever, strings as beautifully mellifluous, and of course the choral singing approached perfection, what Shaw called the ideal of ‘unembarrassed sincerity of dramatic expression’ being evident in every phrase. Oh well – I’ll just have to hear it all again next year.

Melanie Eskenazi



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