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

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

Sarah Fox (soprano), Clare Wilkinson (mezzo-soprano), Ben Johnson (tenor) & Stephan Loges (bass)

Choir of the AAM

Academy of Ancient Music
Richard Egarr

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 14 December, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Handel’s Messiah. Even though only the first third of the great oratorio is concerned with the story of Christ’s birth (it was first performed at Easter) such a strong Christmas tradition has been built up that it is now an indelible part of the festive season.

The music may be reassuringly familiar, but there was nothing routine about this vibrant Academy of Ancient Music performance, thanks primarily to Richard Egarr’s endlessly imaginative direction. He has evidently thought carefully about each phrase, never content to accept a way of doing something simply because centuries of tradition dictate it. But, crucially, it never felt contrived or superficially controversial: every nuance of dynamics, tempo or phrasing was an integrated part of a stylish whole without spoiling the cherished essence.

Ben Johnson. ©Robert PiwcoThe chamber-sized ensemble – an orchestra of fifteen strings plus continuo, and a 22-strong choir – allowed Egarr a huge amount of flexibility with tempos. He was never afraid to slow down or speed up for subtle emphasis. Initially mildly disconcerting, this constant state of flux ensured a wonderfully fresh listening experience. Not everything worked – the forte, elongated and markedly detached “And with his stripes” answered by piano, faster and smoother “we are healed” came over as mannered – but more often than not Egarr offered insight.

The chorus of mainly young singers was magnificent, responding superbly to Egarr’s direction without appearing over-drilled. There was no finer moment than the joyous ‘For unto us a boy is born’ – lively but not hectic, its fiendish melismas (which have tripped up many an experienced choir) delivered with remarkable unanimity and confidence. Other highlights included a terrific ‘He trusted in God’, fast and furious like a Bach Passion crowd-scene; a truly resounding ‘Hallelujah!’; and an assured, enthralling final ‘Amen’ fugue.

The AAM strings were also on brilliant form – nowhere more so than in an exhilarating ‘Why do the nations’, and a grippingly dramatic ‘Thou shalt break them’. David Blackadder must have played the solo in ‘The trumpet shall sound’ hundreds of times, but there was no trace of staleness in his splendidly magisterial account.

If the quartet of soloists was not the finest ever assembled, this hardly diminished the overall quality. First and foremost this was Egarr’s Messiah – a triumph that will live in the memory for many a Christmas to come.

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