Thursday, 21 December 2017

Handel's Messiah from Academy of Ancient Music

Hannah Conway - A Young Known Voice - Academy of Ancient Music, La Retraite RC School, St Paul's Way Trust School, Tri-Borough Music Hub and Westminster City School at the Barbican (Photo Academy of Ancient Music)
Hannah Conway - A Young Known Voice - Academy of Ancient Music,
La Retraite RC School, St Paul's Way Trust School, Tri-Borough Music Hub
 and Westminster City School at the Barbican
(Photo Academy of Ancient Music)
Hannah Conway A young known voice, Handel Messiah; Mary Bevan, Reginald Mobley, Thomas Hobbs, Christopher Purves, Academy of Ancient Music and choir, Richard Egarr; Barbican
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 20 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Messiah and more; a fine narrative based account of Handel's masterpiece, alongside a brand new work

There was something of a surprise at the beginning of the Academy of Ancient Music's performance of Handel's Messiah at the Barbican on Wednesday 20 December 2017, a new piece. The evening began with Hannah Conway's A Young Known Voice, a piece arising out of workshops with schools and performed by 50 school children alongside the Academy of Ancient Music and its choir, conducted by Richard Egarr. For Messiah, the Academy of Ancient Music and choir were joined by Mary Bevan (soprano), Reginald Mobley (counter-tenor), Thomas Hobbs (tenor) and Christopher Purves (baritone), with Richard Egarr directing from the harpsichord.

Hannah Conway's 15 minute piece was the result of the children's reaction to and examination of Messiah. The young people, from La Retraite RC School, St Paul's Way Trust School, Tri-Borough Music Hub and Westminster City School were from diverse ethnic backgrounds and religious backgrounds so the particular Christian resonances of Messiah could not be expected to always be that familiar. In fact, the text Conway developed with them included some powerful passages about alienation, and diversity, but conveyed in a remarkably direct, buzz-word-free way. 'Everyone needs to feel safe. But shouts of: Faggot and Queer Only fed my fear', 'You're not my child anymore'.

These were set to melodies which hovered between folk-influenced and rock musical, which perhaps reflects the children's main communal musical outlook. These were lustily sung mainly in unison by the children's choir, and Conway added support from the orchestra, and overlaid more complex textures in the professional choir. She also wove in section of Messiah, sometimes counter-pointing and juxtaposing.

A majority of the young people were Black, Asian and minority Ethnic, and rather noticeably there was only one Black face amongst the professional performers, that of counter-tenor Reginald Mobley. Whilst the event might have served to introduce them to the wonderful world of Messiah (they stayed to listen to the work), it hardly demonstrated that classical music is the province of everyone, whatever their background.

Messiah was something of a stripped down version, perhaps we might think of it as an austerity Messiah. So just 17 singers, 14 strings and no oboes, just trumpets, timpani and bassoon added to the strings, with keyboard continuo from organ (Alastair Ross) and harpsichord (Richard Egarr), with Egarr doing a dexterous job of jumping up to conduct the choir, and sitting down to play the harpsichord!

But this stripped back approach did not apply to the music itself. The singers in the choir each contributed strongly, the vocal ensemble did not make the sort of smooth blended sound familiar from groups like The Sixteen or Polyphony, instead it functioned more like a large vocal ensemble. The choral performance was very focused, dynamic and highly responsive. The orchestral performance was similarly vibrant, the overture certainly not lacking in drama or vibrancy as a result of the lack of oboes, and the strings made a strong, responsive sound.

Using small forces clearly meant that Richard Egarr could shape the music as he wanted and this was quite an interventionist Messiah. Never over the top, but Egarr liked shaping phrases, holding key notes and creating drama. In the choruses there was much contrast between highly articulated, pointed passages and smoother legato ones or fast passage-work, there was a similar opposition between loud and soft. With such a responsive group of singers, this made for a high degree of drama.

This was not a Messiah that I would want to hear every day but it was certainly an involving and dramatic one. Many of the choruses were highlights, the sheer attack on 'Wonderful, Counsellor', the bravura of the fast passage-work, and particularly the sheer variety and dramatic impulse of the great sequence of choruses in Part Two.

Unfortunately Egarr did not carry this approach through, and there were significant gaps between movements when I would liked things to move on swiftly and let the drama continue. Perhaps another anachronism, but you can hardly avoid anachronism in Messiah I think, such is its familiarity. A truly authentic Messiah might shock in some ways.

We were not told which particular version was being performed, I think it was the standard Watkins Shaw, certainly there seemed few unusual passages. Nor were we told the rationale for the lack of woodwind in the orchestral line-up, but I believe there are documented Handel performances to back this [the original Dublin performances were without oboes, see Update below].

The soloists were encouraged to ornament, and in Da Capo (or quasi Da Capo) repeats we had some fine elaboration, generally based on adding passing notes. Reginald Mobley was the most decorative, but all four gave us some fine cadential flourishes. But this wasn't a performance about virtuoso bravura, for all four singers the words were equally important. Tenor Thomas Hobbs drew applause after his opening recitative and aria, as much for the strong sense of the words and narrative conviction as for the lyrical beauty of his voice.

The whole evening was about telling a story, exactly as librettist Charles Jennens intended. Soprano Mary Bevan sang with beautiful liquid tone, and shaped her phrases finely, but she combined this with a feeling of quiet confidence in the words, so that  her sequence in Part 1 was full of wonder and excitement, whilst 'I know my Redeemer liveth' really meant something.

Counter-tenor Reginald Mobley sang with a slim, soft-edged voice with attractive vibrato. He had a really elegant way with the line and certainly enjoyed ornamenting the music in an expressive way. His opening solo, 'But who may abide' seemed a little short on the drama of the text, but thereafter he conveyed his message well. 'He was despised' was sung in a dignified and sober manner, the words of the middle section really pointed. Unfortunately the aria was counterpointed with a chorus of coughing, this was not an isolated incident and the level of coughing threatened to reach the intolerable.

Tenor Thomas Hobbs combined great lyric beauty in his voice with some spine, and a lovely feeling for the wonders narrated in the text. 'All they that see him' was vivid, whilst 'Behold and see' was direct and highly communicative. In 'Thou shalt break them' he had great fun combining the strength of the words with Handel's music to great effect. He and Mobley combined finely for the duet 'O death', the one matching the other in their ornaments in the second section.

Rather impressively, baritone Christopher Purves combines a career singing dramatic roles in 19th, 20th and 21st century opera with great skill at singing Handel. Perhaps his passage-work was not quite as effortless as that of a specialist Baroque singer, but Purves really made the music and the words count. 'The people that dwelleth' was taken at quite a steady tempo but made really vivid by the detail, whilst 'Why do the nations' was given at impressive speed, full of excitement and an admirable lack of bluster, and there were words too. And of course, 'The trumpet shall sound' which was simply thrilling, but told a story too.

This was quite a long evening, but an absorbing one. A performance full of personality, rather than simply rolling out the annual Messiah, and a wonderful sense of all the performers being their to narrate this remarkable story.

Update: I understand from Richard Egarr (via Twitter) that the original Dublin performances of Messiah did not use oboes, but Handel added them for the Foundling Hospital performances, doubling the soprano line because the sopranos were weak. Also the speed 'People that walked' was based on Handel's temp marking.

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