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

24/12/2015

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

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