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Handel  Messiah: Emma Kirkby, Iestyn Davies, Andrew Kennedy, James Rutherford; Polyphony, The Academy of Ancient Music, cond. Stephen Layton. St John’s, Smith Square, London 23.12.2006 (ME) 



‘The Polyphony Messiah,’ as I have taken to calling it, has been the final concert of the year for me for the past five years, and it never creases to be a highlight of the musical calendar: a glitch this year meant that my request for tickets was not seen until November 30th, by which time, I was informed, there had already been a run on Press Tickets, with an exceptionally long list. Fortunately I was fitted in, but have yet to read any other reviews from amongst that list – I’m eagerly awaiting them, since in previous years there have been just one or two of us to rave over this exceptional musical experience.


‘How do you like your choir?’ is the key question – do you favour an ascetic, reedy sound, or a lusty overwhelming one? Do you like an ethereal, innocent tone, or a powerful, passionate one? Do you favour the ‘authentic,’ – are you one of those for whom ‘It must be as Handel designed it’ is the only rule (despite the number of variations in his own performances)? – or do you hanker after a beefy bunch of Yorkshiremen to belt out the great numbers? Having just written reviews of contrasting versions of Messiah, this question is much on my mind, but for me it’s an easy one to answer – I like my choir as Polyphony, since this ensemble is the finest around, and not just in Europe. The composition of the choir seems to me ideal – seven each in the tenor, bass and soprano sections, and six altos, giving plenty of heft for the more richly textured passages whilst allowing the subtlety and delicacy needed for others, and Stephen Layton seems to understand, as few others do, the import of the work’s full title – it is a Dramatick Oratorio, which has to be conceived in almost operatic terms yet must remain essentially devotional in import.


Every year, there seem to be new subtleties, new graces, in Polyphony’s performance, and this year was no exception: the final lines of ‘Surely He hath borne our griefs’ were intoned with a solemn grandeur which recalled plainchant, ‘the iniquity of us all’ being especially moving: ‘The Lord gave the word’ was overwhelming in its dramatic power, and ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ featured small-part singing which had the intimacy of chamber music, an enthralling concept in this large-scale work and this grand space. The Academy of Ancient Music matched this level of excellence in every way, the strings seeming to take over from the voices between ‘O thou that tellest’ and ‘For behold...,’ and the trumpets exultant in ‘Glory to God.’


It would be difficult for any quartet of soloists to match such choral and orchestral glory, but this one almost succeeded. The ‘almost’ stems from the short-notice replacement of John Mark Ainsley with Andrew Kennedy: it’s never easy to step in like this, and all credit to Mr Kennedy for doing it with such style, but the two singers have very different sounds – where Ainsley’s voice is characterized by sweetness, fluency and freedom, the younger man’s has a somewhat nasal edge, with a sense of restriction at the top. Nevertheless, he gave an outstandingly confident performance of ‘Comfort ye,’ and contributed some very fine recitatives.


The other soloists covered themselves in glory: no one sings ‘Rejoice greatly’ with quite the joyful bounce and sense of ease that Emma Kirkby brings to it, and there are very few basses who can deliver the requisite outrage at ‘Why do the nations’ as well as the sheer power needed at ‘The trumpet shall sound’ with as much conviction and beauty of tone as James Rutherford has at his disposal. The counter-tenor Iestyn Davies continues to grow in musical stature: after last year’s performance I wrote that one could only imagine how far he might go, and it sounds as if he is well on his way. He has a gravitas about his singing which might seem at odds with his youth, yet which is entirely fitting – ‘But who may abide’ and ‘He shall feed his flock’ were both ideally balanced between the sombre and the quietly joyful, and ‘He was despised’ was finely phrased and beautifully coloured – a compliment which could stand for the whole performance. Yet another triumph for Polyphony.


Melanie Eskenazi



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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)