Annual Christmas Festival at St John’s, Smith Square – Handel’s Messiah

Messiah – Sacred Oratorio in three parts to a libretto by Charles Jennens taken from the King James and Great Bibles

Katherine Watson (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), James Gilchrist (tenor) & Neal Davies (bass)


Academy of Ancient Music
Stephen Layton

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 23 December, 2011
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Oxygen was at a premium on a wet, unseasonably warm December evening, but Polyphony and the Academy of Ancient Music banished every trace of stuffiness from the atmosphere through the light and air of their musicianship. The audience rose twice to its collective feet: once for the dubious tradition of standing for the ‘Hallelujah!’ chorus, and again at the end to honour a Messiah of exceptional felicity, clarity and detail. It wasn’t lead in the pencil that Stephen Layton used as a baton for this performance, it was hair from a unicorn’s tail; for only a choral wizard could have conjured up such iridescent lights and intriguing shades, majestic heights and depths of despond from the pages of Handel’s score.

Iestyn Davies. Photograph: Marco Borggreve, 2010James Gilchrist set the tone with a rendition of ‘Comfort ye’ that was marked first by easy articulation, then by dramatic urgency. Gilchrist sang with impressive artistry, taming the serrated edge of his vibrato almost until the end of his final ‘Though shall break them with a rod of iron’. His fellow soloists were equally engaged: Iestyn Davies found every nuance in the alto arias, even when some members of the audience added obbligato expectoration to ‘He was despised’ (“He hid not his face from shame and spitting”… nor from coughing, for that matter).

Stephen Layton. Photograph: Benjamin EalovegaNeal Davies gave a notably dark account of the bass arias – he practically growled his way through ‘The people that walked in darkness’ – while at the other end of the scale Katherine Watson (an alumna of Trinity College, Cambridge and a protégée of Stephen Layton) announced herself as a soprano of great talent and promise. Watson shed a shining light on her solo numbers: she filled ‘Rejoice greatly’ with buoyancy and optimism, imbued ‘How beautiful are the feet’ with enchanting lyricism and dealt effortlessly with the extended lines of ‘If God be for us’ (in which she was splendidly accompanied by the solo violin of Rodolfo Richter, inexhaustible and still sweet of tone two-and-a-half hours into the performance).

The Academy of Ancient Music is always busy with Messiah around Christmas time, but there was nothing routine about this account. Layton’s unorthodox baton (or wand) technique pumped, stretched and cajoled the players into a performance that sounded not merely fresh but newly-minted. Alastair Ross’s harpsichord continuo was discreet and supportive; Robert Vanryne’s trumpet solo incisive and urgent – a proper clarion-call to the dead. As for the choir, Polyphony may only comprise twenty-eight singers, but its secret weapon is its male cohort. The tenors and basses possess enough power for a battalion, and their contribution to the contrasting sections of ‘Since by man came death’ sent an electric current surging through St John’s. The forces may have been modest, but in its impact this performance of Messiah, which was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, was a ‘symphony of a thousand’.

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