Messiah – A Sacred Oratorio in three parts to a libretto compiled by Charles Jennens taken from the King James Bible and Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Allan Clayton (tenor) & Robert Davies (baritone)
Britten Sinfonia Voices
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: 15 December, 2015
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
It was a Barbican-bright Messiah: elegant and smooth-edged on modern instruments, it nestled happily within the dry warmth of the Hall’s polished-wood finish. Only the audience creaked, with an unsettling degree of squirming during the tenor’s ‘Thou shalt break them’ as patrons rearranged their belongings in preparation for the mood-killing moment of audience participation that ends Part Two.
Let’s dispense with the ‘Hallelujah’ horror in short order. The entrenched British habit of standing for this great chorus is as historically spurious as it is disruptive of the music’s flow – especially when, as here, it’s accompanied by merry head-bopping in the Stalls. Only the mulled wine was missing. Poor Handel.
For the rest, Eamonn Dougan conducted an efficient, confident account of the score. Yes, he missed the drama occasionally (and he should certainly have demanded more from the technically proficient but vocally under-characterised Britten Sinfonia Voices: excessively dainty in ‘And he shall purify’ and ‘But thanks be to God’; lacking clarity and energy in ‘Lift up your heads’ and the final ‘Amen’) but it was a joy to hear the Britten Sinfonia play Handel with such tautness and zing under a conductor who not only adopted unerringly judicious tempos but also – crucially in a performance on modern instruments – achieved and maintained an ideal internal balance in support of his four soloists.
With Robert Davies a top-class stand-in for the indisposed Christopher Purves – even-toned and reserved in ‘The people that walked in darkness’, forthright and burnished in ‘The trumpet shall sound’ – this was a peerless quartet. Allan Clayton sang ‘Every valley shall be exalted’ with urgent momentum and a daring sense of freedom, while late on he imbued Handel’s outpouring of despair, ‘Thy rebuke hath broken his heart’, with all the ache of a Britten aria. Iestyn Davies, the tenor’s compadre in many a Messiah, matched his woe in ‘He was despised’ with a final iteration of “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” that tore at the heart, while his da capo embellishments in ‘But who may abide the day of his coming’ had a thought-through dramatic emphasis that transcended mere decoration.
Carolyn Sampson’s name alone is a guarantee of excellence and she was on seraphic form: radiant in her recitatives, meltingly affecting in her exquisitely judged takeover from Iestyn Davies midway through ‘He shall feed his flock’. And, most magically of all, after ‘Hallelujah’ the balm and beauty of her near-sensuous legato in ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ seemed to cleanse the tainted air.