Tuesday 20 December 2016

Intimate and text-driven: Handel's Messiah from Ian Page and Classical Opera

Handel by Balthasar Denner
Handel by Balthasar Denner
Handel Messiah; Sarah Fox, Angela Simkin, Stuart Jackson, Neal Davies, Classical Opera, Ian Page; Temple Winter Festival at Middle Temple Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 19 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Relatively intimate account of Handel's oratorio which had the text to the fore

The Temple Winter Festival came to a close on Monday 19 December 2016 with a performance of Handel's Messiah in Middle Temple Hall, with Ian Page conducting the choir and orchestra of Classical Opera plus soloists Sarah Fox, Angela Simkin, Stuart Jackson and Neal Davies.

Messiah was a work which was notoriously flexible during Handel's lifetime as he adjusted it to suite individual performers. Ian Page's edition of the score was largely traditional, in his note he says that he sought to 'incorporate Handel's lasting preferences'. We also had the versions of 'But who may abide' and 'Thou art gone up on high' which Handel created in 1750 for the castrato Gaetano Guadagni, bringing a little touch of opera seria bravura into the work. So 'But who may abide' was sung by the alto, 'Thy rebuke', 'Behold and see' and 'But Thou didst not leave' were sung by tenor, 'Thou art gone up on high' by alto, 'How beautiful are the feet' by soprano, 'Their sound is gone out' by chorus.

Charles Jennens by Thomas Hudson
Charles Jennens
by Thomas Hudson
This was a relatively intimate account of the work, with a choir of nine young professional singers and an orchestral ensemble based on nine string players. This meant that the soloists could take advantage of the relatively favourable balance, and this was a very text-based performance as it should be. Ian Page favoured quite brisk speeds, particularly in the choruses as he was able to take advantage of the high degree of flexibility and technical expertise from his small group of choristers.

The overture moved from intimacy to grandeur, ending with a nicely perky fast section. The smaller string contingent meant that we got a lovely experience of Mark Baigent's oboe.

The following recitative and aria introduced us to what was, for me, the stand out performance of the evening from tenor Stuart Jackson. Jackson sang with barely a glance at his music and whatever the narrative context, he always brought out the meaning of the words. Oratorio should be as much about words as music, the text was there to convey a message and with Jackson it really did. Not that there was anything skimped about the musical values as he could spin a fine line, produce lovely even runs and sing with lyric beauty, but always allied to the sense of the drama.
Sarah Fox was an untypical soprano soloist; in Messiah there is a tendency to go for white, boyish voices (though Handel rarely, if ever, used treble soloists). Fox is a lyric soprano, but she brought a richer toned voice, finely burnished tone and a greater sense of drama to the music. She really made the sense of the words count for something so that, like Jackson, you got a good feel of dramatic narrative. Her recitative sequence in Part One had a real sense of excitement, and 'Rejoice greatly' was full of crisp rhythms and passage-work which made musico-dramatic sense, whilst 'If God be for us' brought the evening to a close with a fine combination of beauty of tone and meaning in the words.

Mezzo-soprano Angela Simkin has a lovely dark, burnished alto voice with a nice firmness in the middle and lower ranges which will, I think, make her a strong interpreter of the role. She sang a finely musical account, constantly turning in beautifully shaped phrases, and in the showier Guadagni sections brought out a superb technical ability too. But her performance does not, as yet, quite hit the spot. She did not make enough of the words, it was her sense of line and phrasing which counted rather than the dramatic narrative. And she seemed rather too wedded to her music, she simply did not look at the audience enough. Arias like 'He was despised' were beautifully sung, but you admired the performance for its musicality rather than gut-wrenching emotions.

Bass-baritone Neal Davies is an experience Handelian and his performance combined a refreshing vigour with a good attention to the text, and a near-operatic sweep. So there were a clear sense of him telling a story, particularly in moments like 'The trumpet shall sound' and its preceding recitative. He could also be trenchantly forthright, as in 'The people that walked in darkness', though there were occasions when the vigour threatened to turn into bluster, perhaps more suitable for a larger scaled performance.

The choir was on fine form, and produced some dazzling passage-work at Ian Page's sometimes brisk speeds. But the smaller size of the group also brought greater flexibility and incisiveness, so that the choruses came over with a strong sense of character too. There was one moment when ensemble came awry, but overall this was an impressive technical achievement, yet one allied to dramatic values. The important sequence of choruses in Part Two were vivid and varied, whilst also conveying a good feel for the narrative impulse of the work.

The orchestra contributed to the sense of dramatic values, providing some vivid and incisive playing with a real chamber intimacy at times. Trumpeter Neil Brough was the fearless soloist in ;The trumpet shall sound'.

Messiah was not intended to be a sacred work performed in churches, librettist Charles Jennens deliberately intended the piece to be performed in theatres, to combined entertainment with instruction and reach those who rarely attended church, though Handel clearly felt that the work had a moral too it. So it was nice to hear it in secular surroundings and in a more intimate version which really made the text prominent.

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