Saturday 21 December 2013

Handel's Messiah from Temple Church

Temple Church
BBC Radio 3's residency at the Temple Church in London for their Winter Festival finished in fine style with David Hill conducting the BBC Singers and St James Baroque in a performance of Handel's Messiah with soloists Ruby Hughes, David Allsopp, Robin Tritschler and Neal Davies (both Hughes and Tritschler are BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists). This was a relatively small scale performance, 26 singers and 20 instrumentalists (including 11 strings), but the numbers were almost the maximum that the church could take and the performers were crammed into the narrow space of the nave. This meant that Hill was probably further from the choir than he would have liked, and those of us in the front of the audience were close enough to help out of the soloists got stuck, but this didn't seem to matter as all performers joined together to give us vivid and stylish performance

David Hill, one of the country's foremost choral conductors, has probably conducted more performances of Messiah than he cares to remember but this certainly did not show. He is very involved and involving as a conductor, clearly relishing and enjoying the music and conveying this to his performers. Being so close to the stage meant that we were able to see how finely tuned his conducting was, the remarkable detail of his instructions and clear enthusiasm. He was rewarded with a performance of remarkable consistency, with all four of the soloists and chorus having a strong commitment to the text.

Whilst Messiah does not have named characters, it is telling a story though this is sometimes lost in performances. The chorus has a big role to play here as well as the soloist and Hill elicited performances notable for the sense of drama and narrative vividness. But this was combined with a sense of style and a fine sense of line.

The version we were given was the traditional one, based on the performances towards the end of Handel's lifetime. Whilst Hill clearly relished the opportunities for balance and colour, and sheer range of sounds that working with a baroque ensemble gave him in this repertoire his approach was to the music was not strictly period. But what mattered was the sheer quality of the music making and the sense of involvement. The only significant novelty was to use a counter-tenor for the alto soloist. This is a modern trope, as Handel always used a female contralto; on the occasions when he had an alto castrato like Guadagni he added him to the cast and created extra solos for him. He was despised though was always sung by a woman. But again, I can't complain because this would have deprived us of David Allsopp's fine grained performance.

Ruby Hughes made a radiant soprano soloist. Handel delays her entry until the sequence describing the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, to devastating effect. Hughes sang with a lively bright focussed tone and superb words. There is nothing boyish about her voice, but she combined a lovely warmth of tone with a fine focus and line and power where needed. She brought a vivid sense of drama to the sequence. This continued with Rejoice greatly where Hughes also demonstrated a nice way with Handel's passage-work. How beautiful are the feet came over as an infectious Siciliano rhythm, with Hughes combining fine words with lovely clear tones and shape to the lines. This was also true of I know that my Redeemer liveth to which she brought a real feel for the drama of the piece

David Allsopp has a lovely evenly produced voice, and the range of the alto solos in Messiah seem to sit well for him, there was never any sense of him managing his voice. Instead he combined beauty of tone, a fine evenness in the passage-work with a sense of the narrative of the text. Who may abide was song with a lovely sense of line which contrasted beautifully with the fast passage-work in Refiners fire section.  He brought drama to Behold a virgin shall conceive and gave a vivid account of O thou that tellest, with all performers giving a nice bounce to the music. Here, as elsewhere, you were conscious of Allsopp's concern to tell a story. He was despised was sung from memory. Here the combination of the light texture of Allsopp's voice with the relative fleetness of Hill's tempos made the piece less portentous than some, but no less impressively committed. Allsopp sang the whole with a lovely evenness of tone, and spat out the text in the middle section. The performance was ultimately rather moving and very communicative. Thou art gone up on high was very intent and involving and Allsopp joined with Robin Tritschler's tenor for a nicely balanced performance of O Death, where is thy sting the two voices complementing each other well.

The tenor soloist has the dubious honour of opening proceedings with Comfort ye but if Robin Tritschler felt any pressure he didn't show it. He turned in a performance which was nearly ideal with a lovely sense of line, a relaxed feel to the recitative and an imaginative cadenza. In Every valley the passage-work was light and even. In part two the tenor contributions get more intense and here Tritschler brought a vivid sense of drama to the work, still with a fine sense of line. Behold and see was sung with great beauty of tone and But though didst not leave was very involving. In He that dwelleth in heaven he gave real dramatic weight to the words, leading to a brilliantly vivid performance of Thou shalt break them.

Neal Davies started Thus said the Lord  in a dramatic manner, moving his voice with remarkably facility in the passage-work whilst giving it due weight. Davies coped superbly with Hill's relatively fleet tempos and impressed in all his solos in the way he brought drama and control to the passage-work (and never once sounded like a car starting, which is more common than you might think). For behold darkness shall cover the earth and the ensuing aria were notable for Davies' sense of drama combined with a nicely focussed tone. Why do the nations was similarly vivid, again with some wonderful passage-work. Rightly, Davies and Hill made The trumpet shall sound something of a climax to the piece. Here Davies' performance was complemented with the fine trumpet playing from Robert Farley.

The BBC Singers are not a specialist ensemble, they perform music from all periods and there seems to be a concern to bring a slightly neutral attitude to the music, letting it speak for itself and without strong personality intruding. Whilst the choir might not sing with strong personality, they bring a fine musicality to the work. Under Hill's remarkable direction, their performances were well crafted and superbly detailed. The sequence of choruses in part two was impressively done and highly involving. The way that they combined vivid words with smooth line and power in a chorus like Surely was impressive. This was a performance where the chorus work was as finely detailed and is superbly done as the solos.  With the lightness and faster tempos which have come with modern performances of Messiah there has been a tendency in some choirs to sing the faster sections as fast as possible. Thankfully, I never felt that the BBC Singers were saying to us, look at us aren't we clever at how fast we can sing, as happens with some groups. Instead they gave a nice weight to the passage-work so that it really counted, even at Hill's nicely flowing tempos. And in the big choruses they were positively thrilling, bringing a weight of sound to bear which made the combination with St James Baroque result in a glorious noise.

They were finely complemented with the playing of the St James Baroque who started the overture with crisp outlines and nicely sprung rhythms. Throughout the performance you felt that their playing was alive.

Whilst I still have room for performances which try to re-create Messiah from a particular historical point of view, it is also important to rediscover the vivid drama of the piece. Hill and his performers helped us realise the work's narrative sense and thrilling moments.

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