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Handel, ‘Messiah’ - Polyphony choir and orchestra cond. Stephen Layton: Emma Kirkby, Robin Blaze, James Gilchrist, David Wilson Johnson, Hazard Chase Christmas Festival, St John’s, 23rd December 2004 (ME)

Well, here it is again, Merry Christmas at St John’s, the one show of the year when the place is so packed that even the balconies are groaning, and down below in the crypt bar and restaurant the staff simply cannot cope with a full house: what is it about London that we must only allow ourselves to hear ‘suitable’ Christmas music at this time? Over in New York, it’s business as usual on the musical scene, with a starrily cast ‘Kat’à Kabanová’ performed by the Met on Christmas Day itself – but then, over there the working world doesn’t subside into a drunken, slobby sloth for two weeks during the ‘festive’ period as we do, preferring just a couple of days before all goes back to lively normality – must be some connection here between economic success and failure, but of course hardly seasonal – ahem. Why am I putting off writing about this ‘Messiah?’

Well, principally because the all-important solo singing, sung to this full house and received with a standing ovation, was so often weak when compared to some of the performances I have heard here during the rest of the year, generally sung to one-quarter full houses. It could be over-familiarity – just too many damn Messiahs to sing (or attend) or maybe we’re all just getting old: it’s easy to imagine a ‘dream cast’ for this work (Terfel and Scholl for the bass and alto arias, for example…) but often even a young, inexperienced line-up can enchant in this music, whereas this quartet sounded fed up with the work when they weren’t struggling with the demands of the music.

James Gilchrist has an attractive tenor voice of no special distinction, but he is generally musical to the point of scrupulousness: on this occasion however his legato was patchy, his rapid vibrato was present at the most unwanted moments, and he sounded as if he needed someone to straighten out his own rough places in his first aria. Incidentally, musicians may of course decide where to insert trills or other decorative devices, but they normally do this where a decoration will complement the words involved: here, a fairly elaborate trill was given to the word ‘straight’ – call me a curmudgeon but that’s the last word I would want to wiggle around. Things did however improve once that first aria was over, and he delivered ‘Behold, and see’ with a smoother line although ‘Thou shalt break them’ needed more showiness – the tenor should leave the strings in the dust here, and they were still on their feet, metaphorically speaking.

David Wilson-Johnson took a somewhat hectoring approach to ‘Thus saith the Lord’ and his singing tended towards the strident rather than commanding: ‘The trumpet shall sound’ was especially affected by this, with very odd phrasing of the word ‘incorruptible.’ Robin Blaze, like Gilchrist, is very musical but has a voice without much real individuality: hearing his accurate but bland renditions of ‘But who may abide’ and ‘O thou that tellest’ had me longing for James Bowman’s now-insecure but wonderfully characterized tone and phrasing. Blandness was finally dispersed with the arrival of Emma Kirkby, who despite her now-thin tone and occasional uncertainty at the top of the stave, still seemed to relish the music and to convey it with the kind of dramatic fervour which Handel must have wanted.

‘Rejoice Greatly’ was taken at a cracking pace, not so much a minuet as a quickstep, but fortunately the soprano was up to it: this was not universally the case with the chorus as far as their music was concerned, and there were some very odd moments where the conductor seemed to want more than they appeared happy to give him. Nevertheless, Polyphony always fulfil that ideal of ‘unembarrassed sincerity of dramatic expression,’ as Shaw put it, and there was much fine choral work here to enjoy, especially in ‘Their sound is gone out’ and ‘Worthy is the Lamb.’

The Polyphony orchestra was the real glory of this evening: during ‘Why do the nations’ you could not help but attend far more to the violins than to the bass soloist, and the continuo throughout was crisp, elegant and conveyed that rare sense of making the recitatives appear to trip off the singers’ tongues. The brass was as confident as ever, ‘The trumpet shall sound’ being the high point that it ought to be, and even though the organ was not quite in synch at the very end, it was still thunderously dramatic. Stephen Layton never once seemed to be tired with the work, keeping up a brisk and sometimes even jaunty pace throughout: perhaps he needs to rethink his team of soloists, or perhaps they need a break from this ‘most finished piece of Musick.’


Melanie Eskenazi

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