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Handel, Messiah :  Polyphony, Britten Sinfonia, cond. Stephen Layton. Julia Doyle (soprano) Iestyn Davies (Countertenor) David Allsopp (Countertenor) Allan Clayton (Tenor) Andrew Foster-Williams (Bass). St. John’s, Smith Square, London  21. 12.2008 (ME)

This is the sixth time I have reviewed Polyphony’s Messiah at this venue, and it never ceases to sound as fresh as at the first performance – each year there are differences, some subtle and some not so subtle, yet in every one the choir still manages to achieve the perfect combination of stylish ensemble with what Shaw memorably called ‘attacking the choruses with unembarrassed sincerity of dramatic expression.’ On this occasion, it was Polyphony itself which was the star of the evening, given some less than stellar solo singing as well as a second-half substitution from its ranks.

The sound of the Britten Sinfonia, particularly in the string sections, is definitely the most mellow of the groups which Stephen Layton conducts, and this had the effect of making the work sound more ‘classical’ than ‘baroque’ if one may use such hallowed terms so lightly. Allan Clayton’s tenor negotiated the florid passages of his arias skilfully, the voice very confident in production yet at times lacking in sensitivity and tending towards a little coarseness at the lower end of the stave. Julia Doyle’s soprano was clear and bright, if somewhat unvaried in tone, and Iestyn Davies sang ‘But who may abide’ with his customary cultivated beauty of tone, though clearly not at his best owing to the virus which later caused him to lose his voice altogether.

Davies was replaced for Parts 2 and 3 by David Allsopp, a young member of Polyphony who took over as smoothly as if he had been expecting this all along, and covered himself in glory – ‘He was despised’ ought to have sounded tentative, but instead it was absolutely mellifluous, with exact phrasing – this is a singer to watch, already ‘on the up’ with an impressive list of engagements. Andrew Foster-Williams was a sonorous bass, his powerful voice filling out ‘The people that walked in darkness’ and shaking the rafters with ‘The trumpet shall sound.’

You could not hope for better choral singing than we heard here – from the lightness of ‘For unto us a child is born’ through the excitement of ‘Lift up your heads’ to the thundering ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ this was Polyphony’s evening, yet again – and once more a crammed-full St. John’s acclaimed it.

Melanie Eskenazi

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