Messiah – Oratorio in three parts to biblical texts compiled by Charles Jennens
Julia Doyle (soprano), Tim Mead (countertenor), John Mark Ainsley (tenor) & Matthew Brook (bass)
Choir of the Enlightenment
Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment
Tuesday, December 11, 2012 Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Graham Rogers
There is no such thing as an authentic Messiah. Apart from anything else, Handel – possibly music’s greatest pragmatist – made numerous revisions to his most celebrated score throughout his lifetime, each tailored to specific forces at his disposal. Instead, what the best performances of today offer is a vibrant, historically informed style that Handel would hopefully recognise; respect for an un-cut, un-tampered score; and a freshness that keeps the work alive. First class musicianship is also vital, of course – and this magnificent Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performance succeeded on every level.
Though relatively small in number, the lustrous OAE players amply filled the Royal Festival Hall – a far larger venue than anywhere Handel ever staged the work (had he done so here, he would surely have bulked out his forces accordingly – but no matter). Robert Howard’s assured and refreshingly gimmick-free direction was intelligent, faithful to Handel and, above all, lively and buoyant. Standing at an unnecessary second harpsichord which he hardly touched, his confident conducting inspired joyous music-making from the OAE and Choir of the Enlightenment. The singing from the 30-strong chorus was glorious – crisp and disciplined without sounding over-drilled, and richly resonant. The famous ‘Hallelujah’ was especially rousing and the final ‘Amen’ spine-tingling in its power.
Each of the soloists impressed with strong projection and clear enunciation. Matthew Brook has an ideally Handelian voice – suitably imposing but focused, with exemplary coloratura and the stamina for an unflaggingly brilliant ‘The trumpet shall sound’, with an imaginative ornamented repeat. John Mark Ainsley’s beautiful tone and easy fluency ensured a delightful ‘Ev’ry valley’. Julia Doyle’s bubbly personality shone through in an engaging account of ‘Rejoice greatly’, compensating for the slightly breathy quality of her otherwise bright voice, but her agitated jigging disturbed the essential stillness of ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ and other arias. Tim Mead displayed a pleasing countertenor, but did not match the dramatic conviction of his colleagues.
Overall, this was an outstanding performance. There will be many more Messiahs this Christmastime, but few will be as engaging and life-affirming as this.