Messiah – Oratorio in three parts to biblical texts compiled by Charles Jennens
Sophie Bevan (soprano), Christopher Ainslie (countertenor), Allan Clayton (tenor) & Jacques Imbrailo (baritone)
The Choir of Classical Opera
The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: 23 December, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
‘Tis the season to be jolly, so the customary Wigmore flower arrangements gave way to seasonal baubles on either side of the platform while elvish sound engineers had decked the Hall with boughs not of holly but of microphones. More than one per performer, I counted. This small-scale Messiah, then, is destined to fatten out the record catalogues next Christmas.
It has much going for it, not least a solo team that comprised four of today’s finest young artists; but conductor Ian Page fell into the trap of driving his lightweight, easily-manoeuvrable forces too hard across Handel’s musical terrain. Like dodgems in a quarry it was a bumpy ride, with some aggressive singing from the spirited eight-strong Choir (2, 2, 2, 2) whose youthful virtuosity was given its head to a degree that grew progressively wearing. In Part Two the octet’s full-lunged singing in ‘Lift up your heads’ and ‘Let all the angels of God worship Him’ was relentless. Such tiny forces are great for vocal gymnastics but, as Page demonstrated to Messiah’s cost, this comes at the expense of textural interest.
The Orchestra of Classical Opera fielded fourteen top Baroque players and they, like the choral singers, were equal to Page’s urgent demands. Fine as all of them were, over three intense hours it was the nine brilliant string players led by Matthew Truscott whose technical command and sense of ensemble blurred the distinction between chamber and orchestral music-making.
For many in the audience the quartet of soloists will have been the chief lure, and on the whole they did not disappoint. Allan Clayton confirmed his standing as an especially exciting tenor with a fervent account of ‘Comfort ye’ that managed to be vital yet measured at the same time, and he made light of the role’s subsequent 90-minute layoff by returning in Part Two with a dramatically moving sequence around ‘Behold, and see if there be any sorrow’.
The warm-toned Jacques Imbrailo is decidedly a baritone rather than a bass, and he was obliged to nudge some of Handel’s low notes rather than putting his whole heft behind them. There are few to touch the young South African for expressive power, though, and after a hesitant start to the great bass aria his trumpet sounded with hair-raising strength. His countryman and contemporary, Christopher Ainslie, is a gifted countertenor with a luxuriant upper register, and once he had sung his way past some uncertain vocal focus in ‘But who may abide’ he too went on to give an authoritative account of his demanding part.
At the change of key in ‘He shall feed His flock’, when the alto soloist gives way to the soprano, Sophie Bevan’s even, poised first entry was giddying in its beauty. What a sublime artist she is! Earlier on she had spread her operatic wings for ‘And suddenly there was with the angel’; later she would touch both heart and soul with her pure rendition of ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’.
Since the performance was being recorded, we were asked not to stand for that pantomime moment of audience participation at the end of Part Two. There were audible groans from some quarters at this news, but as it meant we were able to concentrate on Handel’s music without several hundred bodies lumbering to their collective feet, I for one say Hallelujah!