Sunday 18 December 2022

A lovely way to begin the Christmas season: Handel's Messiah from Laurence Cummings & Academy of Ancient Music at Barbican Centre

The chapel of the Foundling Hospital where Handel performed Messiah annually
The chapel of the Foundling Hospital where Handel performed Messiah annually

Handel: Messiah; Amanda Forsythe, Jess Dandy, Thomas Walker, Ashley Riches, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings; Barbican Hall
Reviewed 16 December 2022, (★★★★½)

A richly rewarding account of Messiah were words and character were to the fore, yet there were plenty of dazzling rhythms and fabulous passagework

Handel's Messiah is one of those works which has developed its own performance traditions, almost independent of the composer's original intentions. Handel's performances were all relatively small-scale, but before the end of the 18th century the tradition of large-scale festival performances had grown up with led to the huge explosion in big choral Messiah performances which still have echoes in the modern choral society Messiahs. But more recently new traditions have grown up, as chamber choirs and chamber orchestras rediscovered the idea of Messiah with smaller forces, and then in 1979, Christopher Hogwood recorded Messiah complete on period instruments with the Academy of Ancient Music, and another tradition was born. That recording focused on a particular date and time, as Hogwood used the material from Handel's Foundling Hospital performances of Messiah, where we not only have the original parts but the accounts survive, thus telling us exactly how many musicians we used. 

But, frankly, we still know so little about the exact nitty-gritty of most of Handel's oratorio performances that there is plenty of room for ensembles to be creative. The Academy of Ancient Music was back performing Messiah on Friday 16 December 2022 at the Barbican. Their music director Laurence Cummings directed the performance with soloists Amanda Forsythe [last seen in Handel's Amadigi di Gaula from Boston Baroque, see my review], Jess Dandy [whom we caught at Wigmore Hall in August, see my review], Thomas Walker [last seen in Bach's Ascension Oratorio with Gabrieli, my review] and Ashley Riches [who was in Handel's Solomon at this year's BBC Proms, my review]. The latter two soloists replaced Stuart Thomas and William Thomas. 

The version used was very much the traditional one (which is probably a good thing given the last-minute change in soloists). But in terms of performing forces, this was Messiah very much in the style that Handel might have recognised. A chorus of 18 singers (women sopranos and altos), an orchestra based around an ensemble of 14 strings (led by Bojan Cicic) plus two oboes, bassoon, trumpets and timpani. For the continuo we had Cummings on harpsichord plus Stephen Farr doubling harpsichord and organ, and William Carter on theorbo.

Cummings approach to the work could be discerned from the very first notes of the opening Symphony, with a 'Grave' that was very grave indeed, beautifully shaped lines and no sense of hurry at all, followed by a dancing 'Allegro moderato'. This was a performance full of contrasts, as Cummings shaped each section according to its needs and seemed to relish the contrasts between gravely serious and dancing rhythms, between the intimate and the massive. But massiveness was not achieved by pushing, the big choruses were all beautifully controlled; it was via articulation and focus that orchestra and chorus achieved that sense of power. This meant that even the most dramatic sections had a sense of clarity, and everything flowed. There is a lot of music in Messiah, but here Cummings ensured that there were no awkward pauses, no breaks and everything seemed of a piece.

A prime sample of this approach was the first half of Part Two, where we have a long sequence of choral numbers, by turns strong, vigorously rhythmic, dazzlingly controlled runs, rhythmic bounce and vividly fast passagework, creating a sequence that became a larger multi-movement music entity. The chorus was admirable throughout, spitting words out where necessary and able to spin out some dazzlingly fast passagework. Yet, there was always a clarity and flexibility to the sound, along with a sense of the individual character of each of the vocal lines.

Throughout, the words were at a premium. I know that we can almost follow the text of Messiah from memory, but it struck me that all four singers and the chorus made strong efforts towards verbal clarity and expression. We couldn't just hear the words, they meant something. Charles Jennens purpose in assembling the Messiah text was completely didactic. Handel might have written a series of belting tunes, but it was the words that needed to count (perhaps explaining Jennens' less than rapturous view of the finished work). And they really did count here.

Soprano Amanda Forsythe brought a lovely firmness and directness to her performances, culminating in a version of 'I know that my Redeemer liveth' that had all the definitiveness of a performance by Dame Isobel Baillie, for whom the words did have religious significance. Forsythe does not have a pseudo-treble voice, there is a richness and warmth to it. But her opening sequence in Part One mixed this warmth with clarity and a sense of character. 'Rejoice greatly' was quite serious and almost instructive yet enlivened with a lovely rhythmic bounce.

Contralto Jess Dandy brought a lovely seriousness and gravity to her performances. Dandy has a richly coloured voice and she clearly relished the opportunities to mine her strong lower register. In the name of colour, she did not hide changes of register but instead used this creatively. Her performances were characterised by a lovely well-modulated, shapely line, often enlivened by bouncing rhythms from the orchestra. 'He was despised' was serious, dignified and considered, at a flowing tempo that was finely done without quite managing to mine the ultimate in emotion. There was, however, a slight problem. Dandy's voice seemed to be half a size too small for the hall, balance tended to rather favour the orchestra and you felt that she was concentrating on the gravity of delivery rather than projection.

Thomas Walker made a strong impression in the tenor part. His voice has a lovely sense of focused edge to it, combined with a flexibility that I found very appealing. His opening accompagnato was very word  based, leading to an account of 'Every valley' that featured very fine runs indeed. His contributions to part two really focused on the meanings of the text, ranging from a concentrated 'Thy rebuke hath broken his heart' to a beautifully shaped 'Behold, and see', the articulations in 'But thou didst not leave' providing emphasis, and a terrific 'Thou shalt break them' where every word counted.

Bass Ashley Riches sang the entire role from memory (there was a score for 'The trumpet shall sound' but he barely consulted it), which meant that even more than usual his recitatives were directed at us. This was a dramatic performance in the sense that the drama imbued everything, even when Riches wasn't singing, yet not operatic. That opening accompagnato was wonderfully trenchant, and his later contributions to part one were serious and intent, with a sense of conveying message or story to us. In part two, 'Why do the nations' was strong and direct, and we ended with a terrific account of 'The trumpet shall sound'. Riches duetting with some superb trumpet playing, and both performers gave us lovely flexibility and mobility, yet vividness too.

Throughout, the orchestral musicians provided a rich variety of timbre and texture. Cummings encouraged them to give rhythms a nice bounce, so that there was a surprising amount of dance rhythm in the piece. This was a performance full of character, with no sense of having to make allowances for the size of the venue. A lovely way to begin the Christmas season.

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