Julia Doyle (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Allan Clayton (tenor) & Andrew Foster-Williams (bass)
Recorded 22 & 23 December 2008 in St John’s, Smith Square, London
Reviewed by: Graham Rogers
Reviewed: November 2009
CD No: HYPERION
CDA67800 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 14 minutes
Under Stephen Layton, Cambridge-based chamber-choir Polyphony has given acclaimed Christmastime performances of “Messiah” at St John’s, Smith Square since 1994. On most recent occasions the choir has worked with the period-instrument Academy of Ancient Music; in 2008 – when this studio-condition recording was made for Hyperion, in the same venue – the orchestra was the modern-instrument Britten Sinfonia. Though a highly versatile and skilled ensemble (its playing here is impressively crisp and well-sprung), the modern instruments of Britten Sinfonia cannot offer the idiomatic Baroque sound that we have become accustomed to with countless other recordings of “Messiah”, made over the last three decades; ornamentation sounds self-conscious, the playing stylized (as opposed to stylish).
This is a great shame, because the excellent soloists and superb choral singing ensure that there is a lot to enjoy in Layton’s account. The first chorus number, ‘And the glory of the Lord’ is confident, if lacking in the ebullient swagger that distinguishes versions such as Frieder Bernius’s release on Carus with the Stuttgart Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. ‘For unto us’ (here rendered as “uz”), however, is glorious: agile, well-nuanced without sounding contrived, and infectiously joyous. The Second Part’s ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’ has dramatically powerful attack (and helped by terrifically rhythmic playing from the strings); the light-footed ‘Hallelujah’ is unequivocally jubilant. At its best (which it frequently is), Polyphony displays a full, well-articulated sound and the Handelian affinity that the orchestra conspicuously lacks.
As the first solo voice to be heard, Allan Clayton’s firm but sweet tenor is ideal in the scene-setting ‘Comfort ye’, gently poised; ‘Every valley’ is delightfully bright and airy (though slightly marred by one or two obtrusive breaths). Iestyn Davies’s wonderfully silken countertenor is especially impressive in ‘But who may abide’, with fleet and assured coloratura in the central section “For he is like…” with highly-charged string attack that is genuinely shocking). Despite a lovely sound, however, Davies doesn’t quite have the emotional intensity of the most memorable versions of “He was despised” (usually the preserve of contraltos).
Andrew Foster-Williams is admirably rich-voiced and bluster-free, making a good job of his show-stopper ‘The trumpet shall sound’ (although the modern valve-trumpet solo sounds too relaxed and subdued, and – mystifyingly – the da capo reprise ends abruptly after the orchestral ritornellos, without another note being sung). For better and worse, Julia Doyle’s sparkling soprano has much in common with Kathleen Battle: the lively-paced and impeccably-sung ‘Rejoice greatly’ displays a radiant ping to Doyle’s upper register, but there is also a suspicion of lack of involvement, especially in the ballad-like numbers.
Arias such as ‘How beautiful are the feet’ and ‘But thou didst not leave’ are also treated in a peculiar (and surely spurious) fashion by Layton, with Handel’s full unison violin line played by a soloist, in the manner of a trio-sonata. This approach does nothing for the music. Any concerns that a full complement of violins would be overpowering in these intimate arias should have been dispelled by the success with which ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ comes off, retaining Handel’s scoring. The harpsichord and organ continuo is subtle and idiomatic, although the belt and braces approach of having them play together for much of the time becomes a little wearing.
It seems unlikely these days that there are many people who insist on a modern-instrument version of “Messiah” – but if you do, you won’t find better than this. Energised and vibrant, Layton’s buoyant touch ensures that the performance is consistently engaging. Unfortunately, however, it cannot be recommended above the best period-instrument accounts, which have a more natural fluency.