Emma Kirkby (soprano)
Robin Blaze (countertenor)
James Gilchrist (tenor)
David Wilson-Johnson (bass)
The Orchestra of Polyphony
Reviewed by: William Yeoman
Reviewed: 23 December, 2004
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
This performance of Messiah, the closing concert of this year’s “Christmas Festival” at St John’s, was a startling combination of precision choral singing by Polyphony, vigorously sympathetic, clear and expressive playing by the Orchestra of Polyphony, solo singing from a distinguished quartet, and an almost symphonic conception of the whole by Stephen Layton (with more than a little help from the orchestra’s versatile leader Simon Standage).
To take Polyphony first: I have not heard better choral singing than this. Voices were deliberately differentiated (even within sections) yet perfectly balanced and blended; intonation and dynamic shadings were razor-sharp yet fluid and responsive; diction and articulation were as though hewn from marble yet possessed of incarnadine warmth. Right from the dance-like grace of “And the Glory of the Lord” through to the refulgent splendour of the final “Amen”, Polyphony, directed with a clear sense of balance and forward momentum by Layton, was the rock and sonic architecture, upon which everything and everyone hung.
The orchestra, for its part, seemed to grow almost organically from the chorus, despite its having the first sounds with a stately ‘Overture’ replete with over-dotting and pellucid negotiation of the fugal section. And at those times when the strings echoed the work of the vocal soloists, articulation and phrasing was taken up, objectified and thrown back in a game of mutual give and take. There was also some fine solo work from Standage and trumpeter David Blackadder (“The trumpet shall sound”), as well as reliable, imaginative continuo playing from Silas Standage (stage organ) and Alistair Ross (harpsichord and ‘in situ’ organ).
The soloists were on the whole excellent, with James Gilchrist easily the voice of the evening. His tenor has a ringing, silvery quality that projects easily and supports crystal-clear enunciation of the text: perfect for a space such as St John’s. Particularly impressive was his agile “Every Valley” and fervent “Though shalt break them”. Emma Kirkby was also impressive, but her voice has developed a slightly unpleasant edge in recent years, particularly in the upper register, and some of the tempos were questionable, resulting in slightly muddy runs – as in “Rejoice greatly”. Her “If God be for us”, by contrast, was ravishing. David Wilson Johnson was also very good, seeming rather like a fire-breathing preacher a lot of the time, but his voice sometimes became submerged by the orchestra, resulting in a lessening of effect. Robin Blaze’s voice, beautiful if a little small-scale, is a rather one-dimensional instrument and was therefore incapable of bringing out the colours which the text requires – his “He was despised” was dull rather than moving.
So, despite some niggles, this was a very fine Messiah indeed, one that elicited a well-deserved standing ovation from a capacity audience.