Messiah Provides a Fitting End to the Christmas Festival at St. John’s, Smith Square


Handel: Katherine Watson (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Gwilym Bowen (tenor), Neal Davies (bass), Polyphony, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Stephen Layton (conductor), St John’s, Smith Square, London, 23.12.2015. (AS)

Handel: Messiah

This performance was the last in the St John’s 13 day-long 30th Christmas Festival. As in the case of the previous evening’s Bach Mass in B minor, it was conducted by the Festival’s Artistic Director, Stephen Layton. In fact all the artists who took part in the Bach also took part in the Handel work, with the exception that the professional group Polyphony, numbering 32 singers, replaced the slightly larger Trinity College, Cambridge choir. This was a change for the better, since good though the Cambridge group had been, Polyphony offered a cleaner, more sophisticated sound as well as high virtuosity in Handel’s many difficult choral passages.

Layton’s style of performance in Messiah was similar to his way with the Bach work. His tempi were often quite rapid, in the modern style, but again he allowed air into the rhythms, and never drove the music too hard. Nothing had the hectic quality that we sometimes experience in the case of choral directors who strive for some kind of spurious authenticity (I am told that there is no historical evidence to support hasty tempi in Messiah and other choral works of the period).

The musicians of the OAE gave vital and immaculate instrumental support, as one would expect, and of the soloists Katherine Watson again impressed, for her tone quality was lovely, and her technique was pretty secure. It was interesting that in common with the countertenor she added modest decorations in repeats, to good effect. Her “I know that my Redeemer liveth” was very affecting. But the outstanding singer was surely Iestyn Davies. Throughout the work his solos had remarkable intensity and depth of expression. In “He was despised” the nature and strength of Christ’s stoical acceptance of hostility was conveyed in a remarkably immediate fashion. Those of us who pined a little for a female voice in this part were mostly put in our place. But it would be good sometimes to hear again the great mezzo-sopranos (or contraltos, if there are any left) in this role.

Gwilym Bowen had a mixed evening. In the more lyrical sections of his solo role he sang quite beautifully, but his fairly slender tonal resources were sometimes put under too much pressure in dramatic passages, and his delivery became somewhat forced. Neal Davies’s bass part has many difficult aspects technically, especially where there are rapid runs, and not all of these were solved satisfactorily: his is not a naturally agile vocal instrument. When he was allowed to sing out in the few examples where Handel’s music allows greater repose, one was aware of a warm and pleasant tonal quality.

Objectors who may have wished not to stand in “Hallelujah” were overcome when Layton turned round and directed all present to stand: what a curious tradition this is. But at the end of the performance the audience members needed no prompting. Almost as one man and woman they rose on their feet and gave Layton and his colleagues a rapturous reception.

Alan Sanders


Leave a Reply

Recent Reviews



Season Previews

  • NEW! Let’s Dance International Frontiers 29 April – 11 May 2019 in Leicester __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music and Other Events at the Southbank Centre in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Longborough Festival Opera’s 2019 Season __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Cleveland Orchestra in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music at the Barbican in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Met: Live in HD in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Carnegie Hall 2019-2020 Season Highlights __________________________________
  • NEW! Bampton Classical Opera’s 2019 Performances of Stephen Storace’s Gli sposi malcontenti __________________________________
  • NEW! Nevill Holt Opera’s 2019 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! 2019 Aldeburgh Festival at the Snape Maltings in June __________________________________
  • NEW! Garsington Opera’s 2019 30th Anniversary Season __________________________________
  • NEW! Venus Unwrapped: Kings Place’s Year-Long Focus on Women Composers __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera Buenos Aires in 2019 – Largely Traditional __________________________________
  • NEW! Looking Ahead to the 2019 Lucerne Festivals __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera Holland Park’s 2019 Season __________________________________
  • The Royal Opera House’s Exciting 2018/19 Cinema Season __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Zurich Opera in 2018/2019 and Beyond __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

  • NEW! A New Initiative is Announced Supporting the Development of Female Conductors __________________________________
  • NEW! In August Fulham Opera’s Most Ambitious Project to Date – Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg __________________________________
  • NEW! Chelsea Opera Group Perform Boito’s Mefistofele on 24 March at the QEH __________________________________
  • R.I.P. IN MEMORIAM ANDRÉ PREVIN (1929-2019) __________________________________
  • NEW! Ivan Putrov’s Against the Stream Ballet Gala Night on 7 April __________________________________
  • NEW! London To Hear Long-Overdue Revival of Parry’s Oratorio Judith in April __________________________________
  • NEW! Ik zeg: NU: I say now, now … an interview with Richard Causton __________________________________
  • NEW! SOPRANO ELENA MOȘUC IN CONVERSATION WITH CASEY CREEL __________________________________
  • NEW! A Q&A WITH GERMAN SOPRANO PETRA LANG __________________________________
  • HOW TO CONTACT SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL __________________________________
  • Search S&H

    Archives by Week

    Archives by Month