OAE Messiah

Handel
Messiah

Lorna Anderson (soprano)
Clare Wilkinson (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Tortise (tenor)
Matthew Best (bass)

English Voices

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Laurence Cummings (harpsichord)


Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 18 March, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)To stand or not to stand? Ever since George II reportedly leapt to his feet at the start of the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus (whether through musical elation or the more earthy need to relieve his gout) audiences have followed the royal suit. No tradition lasts forever though, and this one appears to be on the wane. At this Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Messiah only about a quarter of the Royal Festival Hall audience eventually rose after much shifting in seats.

The ‘Hallelujah’ itself was glorious, combining – like much of the performance – nobility and pomp with lively buoyancy. Laurence Cummings (replacing the advertised Richard Egarr) has Handel in his veins, and directed from the harpsichord with a natural fluency, his ability to set exactly the right tempo rarely deserting him. Stylistic details abounded (ornaments, phrasing, etc.), but never in contrived fashion. Cummings deftly brought out the contrasts in Handel’s score: majesty, joyful swagger (‘And the glory’), relaxed confidence (‘For unto us’), rustic charm (a sprightly ‘Pastoral Symphony’) and devotion (a beautifully hushed ‘Since by man’).

Laurence CummingsThe OAE is, quite simply, one of the finest ‘period’-instrument groups. Its playing (a decent size band, big enough for its sound to fill the Festival Hall) was superbly refined and exuberant. It was a shame, then, that the singing was of a lesser calibre. It’s hard to understand why a first-class orchestra should employ second-class (or worse) singers; for it meant that this potentially great performance was fatally marred.

Lorna AndersonAt the top end of the soloists, Lorna Anderson projected her fulsome tones superbly, communicating radiant joy with ‘Rejoice greatly’; but in more lyrical numbers the ‘bleat’ in her voice became intrusive. Matthew Best (in place of Christopher Purves) had an impressively resonant voice, but stood uncomfortably with head buried in copy and proved unequal to the demands of Handel’s rapid passages, taking frequent breaths mid-phrase. Cummings wisely spared us the da capo of a rousing but blustering ‘The trumpet shall sound’ (David Blackadder’s trumpet-playing was exemplary).

After a terrific overture, infused with gravitas and energetic verve, Andrew Tortise got the performance off to a dismal vocal start by apologetically mumbling what should be a great proclamation of “Comfort ye”. Vocally competent, Tortise raised his game little further and failed utterly to engage.

“Messiah” needs a full-bodied, creamy-voiced contralto (or counter-tenor) to do justice to the emotional and vocal depths of ‘He was despised’ or the brilliance of ‘But who may abide’; Clare Wilkinson’s small and bland mezzo-soprano was woefully inadequate.

“Messiah” is primarily a choral work, however, so it was also a shame that the OAE had not engaged a crack professional choir. Instead we had the next best thing: the youthful, vibrant English Voices. Small in number (22 singers), the choir nevertheless packed quite a punch (powerfully weighty in the big numbers) and retained character despite evident precision-drilling and sang with gusto and aplomb, with only occasional lapses in tone and ensemble.

Cummings’s occasionally hectic attempt to keep things moving with segues between numbers was not always successful (resulting in some uncomfortably close juxtapositions of contrasting keys and tempos), but overall, if let down by inferior singers, this was an extremely well-considered and joyously played performance.

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