Messiah

Handel
Messiah

Susan Gritton (soprano)
Sara Mingardo (contralto)
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)

Tenebrae

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 12 December, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

First a bit of ‘for the record’ and, then, some ‘housekeeping’. This concert (the second of two accounts of “Messiah”) was Sir Colin Davis’s last with the London Symphony Orchestra as its Principal Conductor. Gordan Nikolitch, leader of the LSO, duly ensured, at the finish, that Sir Colin took a solo bow. A spontaneous standing ovation ensued, modestly received. But, Messiah-like, Sir Colin returns after the Christmas recess (as President) for LSO concerts of Mozart and Elgar (on 6 and 7 January).

The ‘housekeeping’ concerns the edition of “Messiah” used here and the way the work was presented as a concert. In terms of edition, I am no expert, but more clarification was needed. Presumably what we heard equated more or less to the Dublin first performance; yet, several editions (from the scholarly, to the one Beecham had made!) have co-existed over the decades, and it would have been helpful to know which one Davis was using, especially as the detailing of voice-types and who actually sang didn’t always correspond. Whether clerical error or lack of research, anomalies were present, and a more-seasoned “Messiah” listener than I expressed surprised delight at one of the choruses being rendered a cappella. A first for him after many years of “Messiah”-listening! Furthermore, two new recordings of “Messiah” have appeared. That on Linn (of 1742) includes appendices, and five soloists, and that on Naxos is described as the “1751 Version” and requires six solo singers, including three trebles. Hopefully, by the time that LSO Live releases its Davis version, editorial niceties will have been clarified.

The other bit of housekeeping was the placing of the interval, which was halfway through the work’s Part Two. Lindsay Kemp, in the programme note, writes that the “oratorio is divided into three clearly differentiated sections”. In this performance such distinction was lost due to (a) the taking of the interval as mentioned and (b) Sir Colin allowing hardly any pause between the three parts, the contrast too immediately great between the choruses that respectively close Part One and open Part Two (‘His yoke is easy’ / ‘Behold the Lamb of God’). That Davis conducted with an enviable eye on continuity suggested that no interval, although this might have been a test of everyone’s stamina, would have been preferable. The 147 minutes that this account took (no doubt similar to two evenings earlier) can be easily accommodated on two CDs, of course, but a CD per Part would be best rather than splitting Part 2 (albeit at a different place to the concert – 93 minutes had elapsed at the close of ‘Lift up your heads’).

But there are statistics (if not, in this instance, “damn lies”!) and there is a sense of occasion and spiritual uplift. This concert had both. Editions aside, this was a simply spellbinding account of “Messiah”. Sir Colin made some nods towards ‘authenticity’ – the superb, fresh-voiced choir that is Tenebrae numbered ‘just’ 34 members, and the LSO strings were reduced in personnel. Balance was virtually perfect and the Hall’s immediacy came into its own and allowed dynamic contrasts that are not so apparent here with larger forces. Some of the orchestral pianissimos were breathtaking, and the string-playing (violins helpfully antiphonal) was remarkably variegated and unfailingly unanimous. Harpsichord and chamber-organ made a pertinent ‘continuo’. The solo vocalists were consistently fine: Mark Padmore was virtuoso in dealing with runs and ornaments, and movingly plangent in slower numbers; Alastair Miles was not only reliable but vividly communicative; Sara Mingardo’s command of English wasn’t always apparent, but her creamy-rich contralto and eloquence was more than compensation; an expressiveness matched by Susan Gritton (who had 40 or so minutes to wait before singing – Handel gives the other soloists an ‘early touch of the ball’!) who was also fully attuned to coloratura when required.

At the helm, Colin Davis conducted “Messiah” for what it is (or what it seemed to be on this occasion) – a timeless masterpiece of quite exceptional (and consistent) invention. For all the ‘scale’ of the forces used, Davis chose some daringly slow tempos and also ones that were joyously buoyant, the whole having a vivid sense of narrative, humanity and compassion.

“Messiah” is probably better known for its excerpts than its wholeness and a sense of ‘recognition’ was palpable in the audience when a ‘hit’ number struck up. Just three examples: ‘I know that my Redeemer Liveth’ was achingly operatic from Susan Gritton; ‘The trumpet shall sound’ (Miles) brought a notable contribution from Maurice Murphy (standing) playing on a ‘trumpet’ not identified – it looked like a posthorn (but it had valves) – a lovely sound whatever it was!; and the chorus, ‘Hallelujah’ – with ‘normal’ trumpets and hard-stick timpani adding to the celebration – had a real kick of adrenaline, and found a significant number of the audience standing (as tradition dictates, and rightly so for those who wish to do so).

This was, in short, an engrossing and life-enhancing experience, one that was humbling, too – Handel’s genius and the quality of this performance – and one not to miss when shown on BBC4 at 7 p.m. on Saturday 23 December and when released, next year, on LSO Live.

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