Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr – Handel’s Messiah

Hannah Conway
A Young Known Voice [world premiere]
Messiah – Sacred Oratorio in three parts to a libretto by Charles Jennens taken from the King James and Great Bibles [sung in English, with English surtitles]

Mary Bevan (soprano), Reginald Mobley (countertenor), Thomas Hobbs (tenor) & Christopher Purves (baritone)

Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music

Academy of Ancient Music
Richard Egarr (harpsichord)

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 20 December, 2017
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Academy of Ancient Music & Richard Egarr – Handel’s MessiahPhotograph: twitter @AAMorchestraIn a rare departure this Messiah was prefaced by something new, the fifteen-minute A Young Known Voice, directly relating to the Handel and compiled by Hannah Conway, the result of a London schools-based project entitled “Messiah Who?” begun in October and aimed at deconstructing Handel’s masterpiece to focus on issues such as discrimination, international leadership and social exclusion. Scored for members of the AAM, its Choir and fifty students, Conway cleverly grafts melodies from Messiah onto the fabric of this assemblage and juxtaposes lines from Charles Jennens’s libretto with contemporary texts: an upbeat ‘Hallelujah’ would not be out of place in a new musical. Spoken passages were delivered with tremendous conviction: “We chose to leave the EU. They elected Trump. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” caused a stir near me, but there is little doubt that these very able youngsters will be “the future, the newer generation” as the script so confidently affirmed. Compelling, provocative and superbly relevant.

And so to Messiah in an account where the seventeen-member AAM Choir dazzled the ear with breathtaking tempos, clarity of articulation and unanimity of tone. ‘He trusted in God’ was sensational, and even if a mocking tone was largely absent, the agility, energy and control were extraordinary. There was wonderful lightness to the semiquavers in ‘His yolk is easy’, and ‘Let us break their bonds’ was a masterclass in discipline. An idiosyncratic ‘O thou that tellest’ (with an elongated first syllable in the final “Glory”) prompted thoughts of difference for difference’s sake – “the Glory of the Lord” is a wonderful descending phrase, so why interfere with it?

Richard Egarr gave clear direction from the harpsichord. If I had any gripe it would be the slightly-too-long pauses between sections and the subsequent loss of drama and momentum. The impact of ‘For unto us a child is born’ (a bright G-major) is surely all the greater for its arrival immediately after ‘For behold, darkness shall cover the earth’.

The vocal soloists gave mostly impeccable realisations. Mary Bevan was consistently pure-toned, warmth and ardour notably adding to ‘How beautiful are the feet’(silvery violins outstanding) and ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ – memorable for infinite dynamic gradations of tone. Thomas Hobbs brought clarity, if not colour, to his contributions but with plenty of heft in ‘Thou shalt break them’. Notwithstanding the Hinge & Bracket gear-changes from Reginald Mobley (and a surplus of ornamentation) there was much intensity to ‘He was despised’ (as if forging a link to the earlier work) and sang gamely through a wall of audience coughing in the da capo. A sonorous Christopher Purves (rich-toned throughout his range) carried off with aplomb a dangerously fast ‘Why do the nations’ – a bravura performance (also from the string-players) that began with a wry smile towards Egarr as if to say “okay, if that’s the speed you want I can match it.”

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