John Lubbock’ Delightful ‘Messiah’ Banishes the December Blues

23/12/2011

Handel: Messiah: Hannah Davey (soprano), Roderick Morris (counter-tenor), John Pierce (tenor), David Pike (baritone), OSJ Voices (chorus master: Jeremy Jackman), Orchestra of St John’s, John Lubbock (conductor). Hall One, Kings Place, London, 22.12. 2011 (MB)

This was a delight: very much a tonic to December blues. Time was when Hall One of Kings Place would have been considered risibly small for a performance of the Messiah – though time was when anywhere smaller than the Royal Albert Hall or even the Crystal Palace would have been. Monster Victorian performances from the likes of Sir Michael Costa are long gone, though we should do well to recall not only the popular enthusiasm they engendered but also their musical influence: Haydn, in London, heard a performance, which, if not Victorian, employed forces inconceivable today. It set him on the road to writing The Creation.

Back to Kings Place. This was a chamber performance, at least in terms of the orchestra, with strings fewer than I have ever previously encountered: 3, 2, 2, 2, 1. That presents a few problems, not so much in terms of volume – even my knowledge of acoustics informs me that thirty first violins are not ten times as loud as three – but blend and tonal quality. (Indeed, one to a part, true chamber music, will lose the rough edges.) So there were occasions, especially when playing softly, when ensemble could prove a little rough. These should not be exaggerated in importance, however, and should be balanced against considerable cultivation at other times. Vibrato was not eschewed, even if there were passages, more so in the First Part than later on, when more would have been welcome. Leader Richard Milone’s solo work was especially finely turned. And if there were occasions when John Lubbock indulged the contemporary fashion for abrupt endings to phrases – believe me, I have heard much, much worse – much of his characterisation of individual numbers proved both apt and refreshing. For instance, I do not recall hearing ‘He trusted in God that He would deliver Him’ performed with such anger, malice even: the great turba choruses of Bach’s St John Passion came to mind. Given that the words are those of the vicious mob, they who ‘laugh Him to scorn’, such a performance made excellent sense, imparting a greater narrative drive to a section of the oratorio that is not entirely without longueurs, whichever version is employed. (The present version did not, off the top of my head, correspond to any particular Handel performance, but worked well enough.)

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Choral singing, from OSJ Voices, was excellent throughout. Forty-eight strong, according to the programme, this was by contemporary standards a fair-sized chorus, but it lacked little in agility, responding with alacrity to Lubbock’s keenness in numbers such as ‘And the glory of the Lord’. Weight was present where necessary too: indeed, the wholeheartedness to the closing choruses of the second and third parts was quite moving. (Almost everyone stood for the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus. Two notable refuseniks were those who had chattered and disrupted with sweet-wrappers throughout. I shall remember their faces…) This, then, was a choral performance that would put many professional choirs to shame, for which considerable credit must also be ascribed to chorus master, Jeremy Jackman.

The vocal soloists impressed too. If John Pierce’s recitatives sometimes passed uncomfortably into bluster, his arias were generally well phrased. David Pike’s rich tone did not preclude intelligent response to the words. I am not sure that anyone can redeem the dull ‘B’ section of ‘The trumpet shall sound’, but the principal material was especially pleasing, not least thanks to Paul Archibald’s excellent trumpet solo. Hannah Davey’s diction and phrasing often made one consider anew arias one might have thought one knew all too well. Perhaps the most welcome discovery of all was counter-tenor, Roderick Morris. Holding a prejudice here for a contralto, I was delighted to discover that I did not miss the female voice in the slightest. Morris’s voice brought a splendid sense of Baroque theatre to the occasion: despite his Oxford and Cambridge background, this was a supple, dramatic performance more in the mould of David Daniels than Alfred Deller (not that there is anything wrong with the latter). Ornamentation was tasteful and meaningful, less restrained than once would have been heard, but lending new life to Handel’s da capo arias, which can otherwise sometimes become a bit of a trial. There is plenty of life in Messiah yet.

Mark Berry

 

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