Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor) & Christopher Purves (baritone)
The Orchestra of The Sixteen
Reviewed by: Graham Rogers
Reviewed: 3 December, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
There is no such thing as a definitive version of “Messiah”: Handel made alterations to his masterpiece each time he revived it. In this concert marking its 150th-performance of the work, The Sixteen stuck to what has, since the 1980s at least, become the relatively standard edition.
Harry Christophers’s long experience with this great work reaped exceptionally rewarding dividends. His inside-out knowledge of, and evident passion for the score allowed the confidence to be flexible with tempos for moments of special emphasis – such as a subtle pull-up for the basses’ mellow “And peace on earth” in the lively angelic chorus ‘Glory to God’. Speeds were generally brisk (but never rushed); Christophers’s fresh, insightful direction bringing a special feeling of rightness.
Choir and orchestra were on excellent form, clearly inspired by Christophers and the occasion; but the 18 singers and 26-strong orchestra were not suited to the venue; Handel simply didn’t conceive “Messiah” for such a vast space as the Barbican Hall. With no augmentation of forces to fit the venue (as the pragmatic Handel would certainly have done), the result was a disappointing lack of impact in many of the choruses – exacerbated by the traditional but not, in this case, sensible positioning of the choir (effectively a chamber ensemble) behind the orchestra.
All was by no means lost, however. There were many moments – especially in Part 2 – of terrific intensity. ‘Surely He hath borne our griefs’ packed a powerful punch, with crisp dotted rhythms providing dramatic bite.The solo team was unusually strong. Though billed as a mezzo-soprano, Catherine Wyn-Rogers displayed an ideally rich contralto – genuinely engaging in an animated ‘O thou that tellest good tidings’ and captivating in a dignified, but not dirge-like, ‘He was despised’. James Gilchrist’s opening rendition of ‘Comfort ye’ was wonderfully calm and poised, his ‘Every valley’ full of wide-eyed joy – and delightfully ornamented.
Another ideal Handelian, Christopher Purves was resonant and creamy but clear-voiced. His well-defined melismas were refreshing, and he brought real anger to ‘Why do the nations’ – backed by feverishly percussive cellos. Elizabeth Watts beamed her way through ‘Rejoice greatly’; and Watts’s relative inexperience showed in a couple of hiccups.
The dry Barbican Hall acoustic meant a lack of satisfying reverberation in the pregnant pauses at the climaxes of the ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Amen’ choruses – but this is a small gripe, and testament to the splendour of the performance is that it didn’t rely on acoustical aid. All reservations notwithstanding, this was a supremely impressive account of a much-loved and evergreen work.