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Handel, Messiah : Rebecca Evans (soprano); Christopher Ainslie (countertenor); Andrew Staples (tenor); Robert Davies (baritone); Cardiff Polyphonic Choir; Welsh Chamber Players (Leader: Roger Huckle), conducted by Neil Ferris. St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 03.12.06 (GPu)



The English (and Welsh) tradition of ‘local’ performances of Messiah in the weeks before Christmas is an admirable one, which for many music lovers has become an important part of their calendar and a reminder that there is, indeed, rather more that matters about Christmas than television and the shops would have us believe. The annual Cardiff Messiah belongs to the ‘local’ tradition, but that is not to say that as regards performers and standards it is merely parochial. Like many such performances it is based on the work of an amateur choir – but in a culture such as Wales, which has long put great emphasis on the choral tradition, the ‘amateur’ status of the choir does not preclude work of considerable accomplishment. The venue, St. David’s Hall, is a major concert hall and hosts many major international performers. It is a context in which audiences expect to hear music making that fulfils more than merely ‘local’ standards.

And so they did on this occasion. Without being wholly ‘authentic’ (whatever exactly that might mean in terms of this most repeatedly metamorphosed of compositions), this was a performance which, in its employment of a smallish choir (some sixty in all), a chamber orchestra with baroque continuo and a countertenor amongst the soloists, lay quite outside later traditions of inflated forces. The orchestral playing was lithe and crisp, the choral balance generally very well judged.

Of the four soloists one, Rebecca Evans, was ‘local’ insofar as she is a native of South Wales. But she is also, of course, a very well established international soprano, whose operatic experience includes important roles at Covent Garden, the Bayerische Staatsoper and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. She recently scored a major success with a Salzburg Festival Recital of Mozart arias, accompanied by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Her three companions are at earlier stages in their careers, but all gave evidence of considerable promise (and of real enough present achievement), so that they, too, entirely transcended the notion of the merely ‘local’.

Not surprisingly, Rebecca Evans brought to her singing an emotional and tonal range beyond the present abilities of her companions; interestingly, though, she did not possess the greatest clarity of diction – perhaps all that operatic work can instil some bad habits! In the unforced exuberance of ‘Rejoice greatly, o daughter of Zion’, the ravishing tenderness and consummate certainty of ‘How beautiful are the feet’ and the profound serenity of ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’, Ms. Evans was a constant joy. All of her fellow-soloists made valuable contributions too. South African Countertenor Christopher Ainslie, who began postgraduate studies in 2005 with Mark Tucker at the Royal college of Music in London, began a little tentatively but soon began to flourish and his performance of ‘He was despised’ was sombrely moving. Andrew Staples brought an attractive freshness of voice to his tenor solos, not least in ‘Every valley shall be exalted’, a model of jubilant ardour. Robert Davies’s baritone is particularly strong in its lower range and there was much to admire and enjoy in the security with which he negotiated ‘Why do the nations so furiously range’ and the well-controlled movement through hesitancy to certainty in ‘The people that walked in darkness’. These are three young singers of whom we shall surely hear much more.

Neil Ferris’s conducting was intelligently precise and he drew from both orchestra and chorus work of attractive purposefulness, as well as being admirable in his support of the soloists. Without any real sense of overdoing things there were some effective contrasts of tempo – only ‘Let us break their bonds asunder’ being taken at a speed which came close to overtaxing the choir. A few favourites were missing (I was particularly disappointed at the absence of ‘O Death, where is thy sting’), but this was a generally assured (and deservedly well-received) reading of one of the great works of the British musical tradition. Even the Christmas shopping now seems a less dreadful prospect!



Glyn Pursglove

 

 




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)