George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Julian Doyle (soprano); Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor); Allan Clayton (tenor); Andrew Foster-Williams (bass)
Polyphony; Britten Sinfonia/Stephen Layton
rec. St. John’s Smith Square, London, 22-23 December 2008. DDD
English text, French, German translations included
HYPERION CDA67800 [64:27 + 69:34]

In a sense this release brings my experience to date of Messiah on CD full circle. The very first Messiah that I acquired was a live recording, also from St. John’s Smith Square and captured by Hyperion. That was the 1985 version by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers (now on Hyperion’s Dyad label CDD22019), which I still regard highly. Since then several other CD versions of Handel’s great masterpiece have found their way onto my shelves, including the fine Trevor Pinnock DG Archiv (see review) and the Dunedin Consort for Linn (see review).

This new Hyperion release is one that I was keen to hear as soon as it was announced because it features Stephen Layton and his choir, Polyphony, an ensemble that I admire greatly. They have given annual Christmas performances of Messiah at St John’s for quite some years now and this recording was mainly captured at their concerts in December 2008. After I had drafted my review I found that the performance they had given the previous evening, on 21 December, had been attended by my MusicWeb colleague, Melanie Eskenazi (see review). I was pleased to find that Melanie was as taken as I was by the fine singing of Polyphony. I think, however, that I feel a little more positive than she did about the soloists.

Tenor Allan Clayton is the first that we hear. He makes a favourable impression in ‘Comfort ye’, producing a clear and clean tone. The passagework of ‘Ev’ry valley’, taken at a brisk pace, is negotiated deftly and Clayton imparts the proper urgency to this aria. Later on he’s sensitive in the Passion Arias in Part Two and has the right steely tone for ‘Thou shalt break them’. I was a little disappointed that, after Clayton had sung the Passion arias convincingly, Stephen Layton allotted ‘But thou didst not leave his soul in hell’ to soprano Julia Doyle. She sings the aria well enough but this is a turning point in the oratorio, where sorrow and despair give way to hope. One can make out a plausible case, therefore, for a change of singer at this point, which I assume is the way Layton sees it, but I think there’s at least as much musical - and theological - justification for having the same singer illustrate the change of mood and I’d have preferred to hear Clayton at this point.

Miss Doyle is a singer I don’t believe I’ve heard before. She has a pleasing, clear voice and she sings persuasively - though I don’t care for a couple of her ornaments and I think she over-decorates the line in ‘He shall feed his flock’. She sings ‘Rejoice, greatly, O daughter of Zion’ with joyful eagerness, choosing the 4/4 version - I rather prefer the version in 12/8, which seems to me to dance more. I enjoyed much of her singing though I can see what Melanie Eskenazi meant in her concert review when she refers to the tone as “somewhat unvaried”. In three of Miss Doyle’s arias later in the work Stephen Layton has the orchestral violin line played by a solo instrument. I’ve never heard these pieces done this way before. However, by paring the ensemble down to a solo violin and continuo - rather in the manner of a Bach cantata aria - Layton achieves a feeling of intimacy that I like very much.

The other soloist whose voice is new to me is bass Andrew Foster-Williams. He has a fine vocal presence and I enjoyed his contributions very much. ‘Thus says the Lord’ sets the tone for much of his work to follow. The divisions are clearly articulated and his voice is powerful yet never unwieldy. Later in the work he gives a commanding account of ‘Why do the nations’ - the passage at ‘The kings of the earth rise up’ is especially impressive - and the long, difficult passages in triplets are cleanly negotiated. The strings of the Britten Sinfonia add greatly to the excitement in this aria. His account of ‘The trumpet shall sound’, in which he’s partnered by the superb, silvery trumpet playing of Paul Archibald, is quite splendid and I’m only sorry that the da capo section of this aria was left out.

By some distance, however, the stand-out soloist is counter-tenor Iestyn Davies. Some recordings, including the aforementioned ones directed by Harry Christophers and Trevor Pinnock, split the alto arias between a male and a female singer. Generally I prefer this because I feel some arias, such as ‘He was despised’ suit a female voice. I can only say that Davies’s singing completely stills any such objection. He opens with a wonderful account of ‘But who may abide’, the da capo sensitively and imaginatively decorated. The central section, ‘For he is like a refiner’s fire’, is bitingly incisive and the orchestral strings attack the music with gusto - some may be taken aback by this - and with tremendous use of dynamic contrast, all of which acts as a marvellous foil to Davies’s fiery singing. I love his fluent delivery of ‘O thou that tellest’, where his excellent use of ornamentation enhances the vocal line beautifully. He reserves some of his best singing for ‘He was despised’, which he sings with dignity and fine expression. His performance is beautifully controlled, both musically and emotionally, and the da capo section is even more expressive than what has gone before. Everything Davies does in this Messiah enhances his growing reputation.

But I concur with Melanie Eskenazi’s view that it’s Polyphony that are the collective stars of this performance. They sing throughout with great assurance and agility. The ensemble is always clear and crisp and the balance between the vocal parts is as well judged as you could wish. The choir consists of nine sopranos, seven altos (four of which are male), eight tenors and seven basses. That’s just enough singers to give the right amount of body to the big moments but small enough for the choir to sound unfailingly nimble. The mixture of male and female voices in the alto section brings a welcome blend of warmth and edge. Some of Stephen Layton’s tempi are challenging - though never eccentrically fast - but his singers meet and surmount every challenge that he or Handel sets them. I’ve heard Polyphony in a good deal of less familiar repertoire, much of it quite modern, but it’s good to find that they’re just as adept in the core repertoire. I’m not going to give a series of examples - please take the excellence of their singing on trust - but I must just mention the very end of the work. After a blazing, majestic account of ‘Worthy is the Lamb’, sung with fervour and wonderfully incisive rhythms, Layton achieves something of a coup at the start of the ‘Amen’. He has his choir begin this quite quietly and unaccompanied, singing with smooth legato. The restrained dynamic is maintained when the strings take over after the first twenty bars and then, when the chorus re-enters [at 1:22] they do so with a blazing forte and the effect is hugely dramatic. Thereafter the chorus is sung with marvellous affirmation and though I think Layton sustains the general pause before the last three bars for a little longer than is necessary this ‘Amen’ chorus provides an imposing and fittingly fervent conclusion to the performance.

The orchestral accompaniment by the Britten Sinfonia is assured and alert throughout. The orchestra plays on modern instruments but they are fully engaged with period style, especially in the lack of vibrato among the strings. The string sections number 6/5/2/2/1 but I suspect that Layton reduces the number of violins at times. The playing is consistently stylish and to be honest you might think you were listening to a period band. They support the singers - soloists and choir - excellently. Incidentally, Stephen Layton gives us only the short form of the Pastoral Symphony in Part One, a decision of which I approve.

Layton’s direction of the oratorio is wholly convincing. There are one or two very small details that I wished he had treated differently but these are too minor to mention. He often sets brisk tempi but the speeds always make sense and his performers are able to cope well and to articulate the music with pleasing clarity. However, this is not a hasty or brusque Messiah. The reflective numbers are as well done as are the joyful or the dramatic ones. Layton clearly loves the work and that shows through in his direction of it.

It almost goes without saying that Hyperion’s production values are excellent. The sound is clear and pleasing. The booklet notes are good and the full libretto is provided, albeit in quite small type.

This is a fine Messiah, which I have enjoyed greatly and to which I know I’ll return often in the future. It’s a significant contribution to the Handel anniversary celebrations. Hyperion have no doubt released it to catch the Christmas market and that’s entirely understandable. But Messiah isn’t really a Christmas work, despite the seasonal performing tradition that’s grown up, especially in the UK and in North America. It’s at least as much of an Easter work. In fact, Messiah is a year-round work and this excellent recording can and should be enjoyed whatever the season.

John Quinn

see also review by Brain Wilson