Handel’s Messiah – Academy of Ancient Music/Bernard Labadie at Barbican Hall

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

Lydia Teuscher (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Jeremy Ovenden (tenor) & Brindley Sherratt (bass)

Choir of the AAM

Academy of Ancient Music
Bernard Labadie

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 17 December, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Bernard Labadie. Photograph: Francois RivardIt is rare to feel despondent at a Christmas performance of Handel’s uplifting masterpiece, but Bernard Labadie’s determination to put his own stamp on Messiah made this Barbican Hall performance hard to enjoy. Much of Part One was taken so fast it became a gabble, the beheld Lamb of God was subjected to a tasteless ‘baa’ effect, the exhortation to “Lift up your heads, O ye gates” had all the strength and might of a tripping company of elves, and the prissily phrased ‘Amen’ dripped with self-regard. Worse, after tinkering with such specific details, the Canadian conductor let general matters of ensemble and intonation slide. It became easy to guess the parts he’d rehearsed heavily and the sections that had been left to look after themselves – which they did not always do.

Iestyn Davies. Photograph: © Iestyn Davies and Marco Borggreve 2010If Labadie made a sow’s ear out of the Academy of Ancient Music’s silk purse, at least some fine soloists were on hand to limit the damage. Brindley Sherratt, the richly resonant bass, gilded his music with a reading so finely judged that no one could resent the spontaneous ovation he (together with trumpeter David Blackadder) received for ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’ – which, incidentally, he treated to a minimum of ornamentation. Lydia Teuscher’s heavily accented delivery was enchanting, especially in ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’, where one sensed Handel’s own struggles to master English when the German soprano, following the score as written, was obliged to snatch at the third iteration of the word “stand”.

Jeremy Ovenden’s sturdy tenor contributions were eloquent without being mellifluous, but the most relaxed person on the platform was Iestyn Davies. The still-youthful countertenor is a commanding artist these days; he made light of ‘But who may abide’, boldly yet discreetly embellishing the da capo, and shaped ‘He was despised’ with the utmost gravitas. At the interval between Parts One and Two Guy Dammann, Chairman of the Critics’ Circle’s Music Section, presented Davies with the 2013 Critics’ Circle Award for Exceptional Young Talent (voice). The wisdom of their choice was there for all to hear.Alastair Ross contributed a masterly harpsichord continuo, and the trumpets in ‘Glory to God’ sounded brilliantly from on high, but neither these felicities nor the memory of Davies and Sherratt in their pomp will efface Labadie’s peculiarities. His excessive speeds during the first hour did not make Messiah sound more urgent or alive, they just made the music sound garbled and rendered its impact perfunctory – which is an achievement of a sort, I suppose.

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