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Handel, ‘Messiah’:  The Sixteen, The Symphony of Harmony and Invention, cond. Harry Christophers. Sally Matthews (soprano) Michael Chance (counter-tenor) John Mark Ainsley (tenor) Roderick Williams (bass), Barbican Hall, 2.12.2005 (ME) 



Hallelujah! It’s that time of year again, and to kick off the ‘Messiah’ season we had a performance by forces which one might have expected to hear in St John’s Smith Square, but that perfect space seems to have been colonised by the Polyphony gang – their version will be given on the 23rd, thus nicely framing Advent for your ‘Messiah’-loving critic. One might have thought the Barbican Hall an unfestive location for the work, but one would have been very much mistaken, since this was as moving a ‘Messiah’ as could be wished for, despite some divergence as to exactly the singing style required from the soloists.

‘Why… does not somebody set up a thoroughly rehearsed and exhaustively studied performance of The Messiah…with a chorus of twenty capable artists? Most of us would be glad to hear the work seriously performed once before we die’ spluttered Shaw – how he would have loved this one, with very nearly the numbers he wanted, The Sixteen actually numbering eighteen. I don’t think I have ever heard better choral singing: those six sopranos and four each of alto, tenor and bass, wielded more sheer vocal force when it was needed than the several hundredweight of burly Yorkshiremen one often gets in the ‘traditional’ style of performance, and provided more cleanly hushed quiet passagework than any of the ‘authentic’ groups, For unto us a child is born being a perfect example, the words Wonderful, Counsellor ringing out with rare clarity and conviction. Since by man came death was superbly theatrical in its contrast to the soprano’s preceding air, the consonants so crisp that you could almost see them.

Clarity and theatricality were also the hallmarks of the tenor soloist, John Mark Ainsley, whose opening decorations were exceptionally ambitious even for him. I think it was the great Heddle Nash who once described himself as ‘The best bleedin’ Messiah in the country,’ and were he not so obviously unassuming, Mr Ainsley could easily say the same of himself: I loved the ringing confidence of his ‘and cry unto her,’ and the way he colours the words so that instead of just being crooned as they so often are, terms such as warfare and pardoned actually mean something, the former martial and the latter tender. Ev’ry valley was sung with the kind of exuberance and panache which it should always have, and his Part Two sequence offered some truly distinguished recitative, especially in a deeply moving Thy rebuke, and the aria But thou didst not leave His soul in Hell provided some of the finest singing you could wish for, with a wonderful trill on ‘Thy Holy One.’

The bass Roderick Williams is less of a mould-breaker than the tenor, since he is elegant rather than passionate, restrained rather than flamboyant, but he too offered some exceptionally fine singing. You might want a little more drama at Thus saith the Lord, or perhaps a fuller sense of grandeur at His glory shall be seen upon thee, but you could hardly ask for a more cultivated sound in Behold, I tell you a mystery or a more finely nuanced Why do the nations. As for The trumpet shall sound, it was a model of confidence and style, superbly partnered by Robert Farley whose trumpet solo is a sound for which you’d be happy to rise from the grave no matter which side of the Bearded One was to be your destiny.

I was less enamoured of the alto and soprano soloists, but to be absolutely fair, Michael Chance had nobly stood in at the last moment, replacing the indisposed Patricia Bardon, and Sally Matthews had the beginnings of a cold, so one should not judge either of them too harshly. Chance is always reliable in this music, and even though one could not be hearing him at his best on this occasion, he gave a really wonderful account of He was despised, the diction a joy and the phrasing sheer perfection, and he blended finely with the tenor in O Death, where is thy sting?

I had been giving Sally Matthews ‘rave’ reviews when she was barely a footnote on other pages, so it’s a joy to see that she really has proved herself to be ‘the business’ – this is, as I’ve said before, a real Handel voice in every way, allied to an exceptional stage presence – she sang David Daniels off the stage in the recent ROH ‘Mitridate,’ and even gave Bruce Ford a run for his money. That she could not come near to doing so with Ainsley on this occasion must have been down to her cold, since she was opting for very ‘safe’ presentation of her music, with some rather odd diction in Rejoice greatly and soupy vowels in I know that my Redeemer liveth. Nevertheless there was lovely singing here, most obviously in How beautiful are the feet, although the rather full-blown operatic style would not please those more used to, say, Emma Kirkby.

The Symphony of Harmony and Invention were the equal of The Sixteen in superb phrasing, confident attack and sprightly pace: the delicate Pastoral Symphony is always the test for the orchestra, and here it was superb, with playing so subtle and finely judged that no one could have asked for more. If any proof were still needed that a period instrument band can be as stylish and polished as any other, then Harry Christophers and his musicians provide it with almost every phrase.

Handel is said to have regarded He saw the lovely youth (from ‘Theodora’) as ‘far beyond’ the ‘Hallelujah’ of ‘Messiah’ – few audiences today would agree with him, and of course most of us duly stood up at the expected moment, but I like to think that we do so not out of respect for an outmoded or mistaken tradition, but because – when we get a performance such as this one – we feel as Handel himself felt while he was composing the work, ‘as if I saw God on his throne, and all his angels around him.’



Melanie Eskenazi 

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