Messiah – oratorio to a text by Charles Jennens, after biblical texts

Dominique Labelle (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor) & Matthew Rose (bass)

Members of:
CBSO Youth Chorus
Hallé Youth Choir
National Youth Choir of Great Britain
National Youth Choir of Wales
Quay Voices (The Sage Gateshead)
RSCM Millennium Youth Choir
Scunthorpe Co-operative Junior Choir

Northern Sinfonia
Nicholas McGegan

Reviewed by: Melanie Eskenazi

Reviewed: 6 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

“Tis the Season…”, well, not really, but the nation’s favourite oratorio needs no excuse to be trotted out, and what an odd hybrid this one was! Performances of “Messiah” tend to fall into two groups – they’re either sung by beefy massed choirs and equally beefy soloists and played on modern instruments by musicians who might have been playing Mahler the previous day, or they’re sung by eighteen ethereal-looking Oxbridge types and equally weedy soloists, and played on wonky ‘authentic’ instruments by musicians who’d really much rather go back to Gesualdo. I jest, of course, but you get the idea – it’s either fish or fowl, but this Prom sought to demonstrate that you can mix ‘n’ match, if not entirely successfully.

To be honest, you can’t turn the Northern Sinfonia into the Academy of Ancient Music simply by sticking Nicholas McGegan in front of it, valiant though his effort was to elicit springy rhythms, fast tempos and vibrato-light phrasing, and you can’t really hope for a coherent effect when you pair about 300 choristers all bellowing away with four specialist baroque vocal soloists. Not that there’s anything wrong with bringing all these youngsters to the Proms stage – their sound was no less vivid and dramatic than that of any other massed choir, but it just does not have the same impact as a small choir in an intimate space.

It was a pity that the solo singing was uneven, with both of the ladies recalling the bad old days of indistinct phrasing and gooey sentimentality. I suppose we all have our silly ‘Messiah’ misunderstandings (“We like sheep”, and so on) and mine used to be to wonder, at a very early age, who exactly this ‘Oviss Cumming’ guy was, and why we should all be concerned about standing when he appeareth? In these days of crystalline diction and countertenors, I have not met with Mr Cumming in thirty or so previous performances of “Messiah”, but lo, here he was being introduced by Patricia Bardon, surprisingly given that she is an excellent Handel singer. She did improve in Part Two, although ‘He was despised’ seemed to go on for too long. Dominique Labelle was similarly ‘old school’ with some indulgent mannerisms and choppy phrasing.

The men were much better: Matthew Rose has gone from strength to strength over the past two years, and his confident articulation, sonorous tone and vivid projection were heard to great advantage in ‘Why do the nations’ and ‘The trumpet shall sound.’ John Mark Ainsley presents ‘Comfort Ye’ and ‘Ev’ry valley’ differently each time he sings it, but always immaculately enunciated and with wonderfully ornate decoration and stylish projection. He had the lion’s share of the arias and recitatives, and deserved them – ‘Thy rebuke hath broken his heart’ was especially moving, although he did not quite leave the violins in the dust with ‘Thou shalt break them’ as he usually does.

The ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus found the whole auditorium on its feet, appropriately given that this concert was not only the culmination of the BBC Proms’ Handel celebrations, but also the introductory inspiration to the “Sing Hallelujah” project, which brings together English National Opera and BBC Radio 3 to encourage people to find their voice and discover the joy of singing through Handel’s most famous piece. ENO premieres Deborah Warner’s staging of “Messiah” on 27 November, and there will be a special “Sing Hallelujah” weekend on 5/6 December, when beginners and enthusiastic amateurs can join together.

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