Monday 17 December 2012

Messiah - The Sixteen at the Barbican

The Sixteen, (c) Molina Visuals
Keeping a work fresh after multiple performances is something of a skill. With a work like Messiah, which comes round annually, it becomes something of an art. The Sixteen, under their conductor Harry Christophers, were at the Barbican Centre on Sunday 16 December to perform Messiah, a work which they have been performing since the 1980's. They were joined by the singers of Genesis Sixteen, the Sixteen's training programme for young choral singers, as well as a quartet of distinguished soloists, Carolyn Sampson, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, James Gilchrist and David Wilson-Johnson.

Handel first performed Messiah in Dublin in a concert hall (the New Music Hall in Fishamble Street) in 1742. It was a great success. The first London performances at the Covent Garden Theatre in 1743 were less of a success. One reason Londoners took time to like it is that Messiah uses text from the Bible rather than a custom written libretto; but it is still a dramatic concert work nonetheless and certainly not sacred. Handel's oratorios were dramatic works, written for concert performance in the theatre. Charles Jennens, who assembled the libretto for Messiah, described the work as 'a fine entertainment. But in 1750, Handel presented a performance of the piece at the chapel of the Foundling Hospital as benefit for the Foundling Hospital. This was the start of something big, these performances became extremely annual ones, popular laying the foundation for the later popularity of Messiah and perhaps creating the idea that the work was in some way sacred.

Though Handel made changes to oratorios each time he performed them, the way Messiah was repeated annually helped it settle down to a sort of standard version so that of 1754 (recorded by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music) is pretty close to what we think of today as Messiah. Handel gave a set of parts to the Foundling Hospital and from these, and accounts, we know that he used an orchestra with 14 violins, 6 violas, 3 cellos and 2 double basses, 4 oboes, 4 bassoons, 2 horns and 2 trumpets. Handel's choir consisted of 6 trebles and 13 men, who would have been joined by the soloists.

For his performance at the Barbican Harry Christophers used a choir of 36 (18 members of The Sixteen and 18 members of Genesis Sixteen), alongside an orchestra of 11 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos, violone, 3 oboes, bassoon, 2 trumpets. As can be seen the relative balance between choir and orchestra is very different. In a programme note Christophers refers to the fact that modern day choirs do not need 'the support of a dozen oboes or a bass line heavily reinforced by extra strings'. But Handel's 25 singers with 25 strings is rather different to 36 singers supported by 18 strings. You felt that the band was set up to balance The Sixteen alone.

For some choruses Christophers used just The Sixteen, reserving the full forces for bigger moments. When everyone was singing, I would have a liked more from the orchestra, but what this did do was spotlight the choral singing. And what choral singing it was.

Christophers took a flexible view of tempi in the work with some movements taken at quite a lick, but the whole felt naturally paced rather than driven thanks to the way he allowed space and time in others. In many ways, his moving the tempi around, and the shaping of dynamics, was rather romantic and not what we think of as period at all. His singers responded brilliantly so that we had some moments of impressively fleet (and unanimous) passagework. There were also lots of lively and very infectious rhythms; Handel's work is full of rhythmic felicities and responds to having these brought out.

But what impressed most was that the choral singing was in the service of the music. In some recent performances of Messiah I have felt that the choir was concerned to show its prowess, how fast and how dazzlingly they could sing. But you did not feel that here, the performance had a relaxed feel and the considerable technical prowess was given in the service of the music.

It helped that Christophers and his choir and soloists were all united in presenting the piece quite dramatically, it might be a concert work with no named roles but all the performers, including chorus, were definitely telling a story.

Soprano Carolyn Sampson gave a poised, sophisticated performance. Her voice easily encompasses the requirements of the score, and she tossed off the more tricky passages with facility. She brought great beauty, but also great art. I was aware that her performance was supremely artful. Arias like I know that my redeemer liveth were things of great beauty, which I admired greatly. But part of me still prefers an element of pure simplicity here, perhaps also Sampson's artfully winning stage manner seemed slightly out of keeping with the role. But I am quibbling, there is no doubt that her performances were of great and profound beauty.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers' performance was moving and deeply felt, though her stage manner seemed rather too severe, and threatened to turn disapproving. But she brought strong commitment to the role, and also a clear projection of message, by her severity she too was telling a story. In He was despised, she abandoned her score and as a result seemed a little freer and particularly moving.

James Gilchrist admirably combined drama with technical facility and fluency. His performances were nicely poised, with an admirably clear line and some fine ornamentation, but he was also finely dramatic. His voice manages to combine focus, line and technical facility with a vivid projection of drama; you began to see how a tenor like John Beard might encompass all the Handel roles, from the lightest to the heaviest. The long sequence in part 2, from 'Thy rebuke had broken His heart' to 'But Thou didst not leave His soul in Hell' became an involving dramatic sequence, which combined narrative propulsion with technical bravura.

I have to confess that there were moments when it seemed that David Wilson-Johnson's vibrato would tip his voice over into instability, but it never did. Instead he displayed a frankly amazing capacity for Handelian passagework, and a rather vivid way of presenting the story of an aria. His performance was not ideally technically clean, but his were some of the most vividly engaging accounts of the bass arias that I have heard in a long time.

Christophers ensured that the drama flowed, partly by not having gaps between numbers. Each one flowed naturally into the next, with soloists getting up during the ritornelli and almost button holing us with the next instalment of the story. This continuity and feel for the dramatic whole was typical of this highly vivid account of the work. Soloists, chorus and orchestra united in bringing out the narrative, story telling element in the oratorio. Handel was a naturally dramatic writer and a work like Messiah can be equally so, if you let it.

This wasn't the most cutting edge, historically informed performance. Instead we had a vividly involving and theatrically dramatic account of the work which showcased choral singing which was brilliant, but brilliant in the service of Handel's music. And it was greeted, quite rightly, with an enthusiastic ovation by the capacity audience.

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