Handel’s Messiah at St John’s Smith Square – Stephen Layton conducts Polyphony, OAE, Katherine Watson, Iestyn Davies, Gwilym Bowen & Neal Davies

Handel
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

Katherine Watson (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Gwilym Bowen (tenor) & Neal Davies (bass)

Polyphony

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Stephen Layton


Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 23 December, 2015
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Stephen LaytonPhotograph: www.stephenlayton.comThis Messiah was the final event of the thirtieth Christmas Festival taking place at St John’s, Smith Square. Its artistic director Stephen Layton presided over a fine team of soloists, the thirty-one-strong Polyphony and the ever-reliable Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Did this Baroque-pitch rendition (tuning at A415) add up to anything more than another polished but routine performance? In many ways it did, although after the closing ‘Amen’ I left the former church impressed but not awestruck. It took a while to get used to, and then ignore, the idiosyncratic style of Layton’s conducting: his gestures brought to mind both an automaton and an uncontrollable windmill, signals that were especially intrusive on the image of Christ as shepherd in ‘He shall feed his flock’. That said, bracing tempos and virtually no pauses between sections created an almost operatic sweep to the narrative.

But, even if Layton’s beat was sometimes invasive, there was more often a sense of purpose behind his gesticulations – none more so than his shaping of the violin writing in the brief tenor aria, ‘Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow’, tellingly sung by Gwilym Bowen. Moments earlier he and Layton perfectly caught the desolation of ‘Thy rebuke hath broken his heart’ where singer and strings were beautifully poised.

Gwilym BowenPhotograph: www.gwilymbowen.comAn inscrutable Iestyn Davies was silky-smooth in his arias, bringing to them musical intelligence (an almost tangible sense of venom in ‘He was despised’), if not any sense of himself. Katherine Watson was silvery-toned in ‘Rejoice greatly’, but her diphthongs at the start of ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ caused some momentary eyebrow-raising. Notably dramatic singing came from Neal Davies whose sonorous tones really did conjure darkness covering the earth in his first offering. Later he brought fabulous expression to the mystery of eternal life and formed a compelling partnership with David Blackadder in ‘The trumpet shall sound’.

Some of the most memorable moments were produced by the chorus and rarely have I heard such incisive vocal attack as launched ‘Surely’ – eyebrows were up again but now accompanied by a smile. Polyphony became a braying mob in ‘He trusted in God’ and the opening of ‘The Lord gave the word’ was magnificent with Layton driving the music forward to exhilarating effect. If occasionally consonants were over-produced and leapt out from the text (‘All we like sheep’ was one notable example) the choir was a well-blended and energetic ensemble singing throughout with impeccable intonation and conviction. Variable dynamics and a flexible tempo contributed to a glorious ‘Amen’ and with the addition of the main organ Stephen Farr provided an extra layer of grandeur. A standing ovation seemed to say it all!

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