Messiah – A Sacred Oratorio in three parts to a libretto compiled by Charles Jennens taken from the King James Bible and Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer
Emmanuelle de Negri & Katherine Watson (sopranos), Carlo Vistoli (countertenor), Samuel Boden (tenor) & Konstantin Wolff (bass-baritone)
Les Arts Florissants
Reviewed by: David Truslove
Reviewed: 19 December, 2016
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
For this bumper Handel Messiah not a single note was missing; William Christie included every chorus and recitative, not even removing the central panel of ‘The trumpet shall sound’. It made for an interesting evening, not least the interruption of the Passion story by placing the interval after ‘All we like sheep’. This may allow a more even distribution of numbers either side of the break but makes nonsense of the narrative flow and momentum that’s built into Part Two. However, thanks to Christie’s lively tempos and stylish conducting it was still hugely rewarding, despite some uneven contributions.
It was luxury to have two sopranos who shared the arias. Emmanuelle de Negri was notably radiant in ‘Rejoice greatly’ and well-suited to ‘Thou art gone up on high’, usually assigned to an alto. Katherine Watson took on ‘How beautiful are the feet’ and created an eloquent partnership with the leader and two continuo-players. But it was her rendition of ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ that took the palm, wedding glorious tone to musical intelligence. It was breathtaking.
There were other delights, too. Samuel Boden was silky-smooth in the opening ‘Comfort ye’, fashioning beautifully measured timbre and making you think that he might have been singing this aria for the first time. Konstantin Wolff was stylish in his recitatives and brought authority to ‘Why do the nations’, energised magnificently by Christie and the strings. The only disappointment was countertenor Carlo Vistoli (replacing Tim Mead) whose arias were encrusted with decorative barnacles and in ‘But who may abide’ he slipped into Hinge & Bracket mode. Later we had a heart-on-sleeve take of ‘He was despised’, which needs simplicity, not over-dramatised facial expressions that bring to mind the Panto season.
Fortunately, there were no other irritations, although there were some idiosyncratic moments from Christie such as an accelerando to conclude ‘Hallelujah’ (which had cued the inevitable rise of the audience). If the dynamic contrasts in ‘Surely’ were a little exaggerated, it provided an opportunity for some light and shade which brilliantly occurred in ‘Since by man came death’ – in which the a cappella chorus was outstanding; not a voice out of tune or out of place and with notable dynamic control. Elsewhere the twenty-four voices produced crisp, clear and lively singing, anchored by a bass section of depth and richness.
The orchestra was on fine form too, although we didn’t need Christie to tug at his right ear in ‘The trumpet shall sound’ to hear that the violin pitch was sagging. For the beefy choruses he included two-horn players (like a Christmas pudding with extra sixpences) presumably to double the violas. Perhaps had they stood like the two trumpeters their input might have been more noticeable. The classy timpani-contribution of Marie-Ange Petit was incisive yet expressive – bringing this Messiah to a magnificent close.