Glory and Power: Fabio Biondi’s Messiah At Santa Cecilia

ItalyItaly Handel, MessiahOrchestra and Chorus of Santa Cecilia, Fabio Biondi (conductor) Ciro Visco (chorus master), Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Romina Basso (contralto), Jeremy Ovenden (tenor), Vito Priante (bass), Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome, 20.12.2011 (JB)

Fabio Biond Leads the Orchestra Of Santa Cecilia in the Messiah ©Musacchio Ianniello

There is a piece of music which is so much part of me and me of it that I have to stop in my tracks to properly understand the difference. In the North of England where I grew up in the forties and fifties there was a strong tradition of amateur choral singing, mostly centered round the many free churches (that is Christian churches other than the Anglican or Roman Catholic). Each of these churches had a choir with choirmaster and organist (usually the same man, they were rarely women). Some of these gentlemen were professional musicians, like George Crick, the music master at Accrington Grammar School who explained the intricacies of A level music so clearly that even a dim witted kid like me was able to pass that tricky exam with top grade.

Around Christmas, most of the free churches presented their Messiah. Soloists – all gifted amateurs – would move from church to church, so that on days you weren’t singing or rehearsing Messiah you could go to listen to it. Tom Berry was a big-voiced Welshman who stood next to me in choir and never quite managed to get onto the note. I knew nought about intonation then but I could hear there was something not quite right about Tom’s notes. Just get it out boy, he’d say to me between takes. And I did. It must have been pretty awful. But I hadn’t at the time understood that in getting it out I was also most profoundly getting it in.

available at Amazon
G.F.Handel, The Messiah,
P.McCreesh / The Gabrieli Consort
D.Röschmann, S.Gritton, B.Fink, C.Daniels et al.

Years later, when I was Director of Music at Wennington School, I conducted a Messiah in Wetherby Parish church in which I involved the entire school in the choir, importing the soloists and orchestra. The sixth form boys were especially shy about using their voices, but of course, they were essential for the tenor and bass sections of the choir. Mercifully, I was able to convey Tom Berry’s spirit to them and I like to think that the resulting choruses were a cut above Oak Street Congregational Church twenty years earlier. Very gratifying when recently, one of these boys – now a grandfather – told me that he and his wife (also in the choir) were still singing Messiah while they were doing the washing up!

Also in the fifties there were Christmas broadcasts of Messiah, usually with the augmented Huddersfield Choral Society and conducted by the most abominable of British conductors, Sir Malcolm Sergeant – known as Flash Harry. At this time, bigger was better in Messiah performances. So Handel survived not only Tom Berry but Flash Harry. And me.

When I first knew Ted Perry in the eighties I soon understood that I was talking with one of the world’s most entrepreneurial spirits. Ted was a taxi driver by day and getting his dream child, Hyperion records off the ground in the evening. We used to meet over tea at Fortnum’s soda fountain around four when Ted was changing over from his one activity to the other. The major objective of Hyperion was to fill the enormous gaps that the big commercial recording companies had left vacant. He introduced the world to the music of Hildegard of Bingen through a superb recording from Gothic Voices (one of his best sellers).

In December 1986 he recorded all four performances of Messiah at St John’s Smith Square, London, conducted by Harry Christopher with his Sixteen Choir and Orchestra – so called because that was the number of singers in the choir and with not that many more in the orchestra. Moreover, these were the numbers which Handel engaged at the 1742 Dublin premiere. And the resulting Hyperion two CD set still remains one of their best sellers as well as my own most frequently listened-to CDs.

Fabio Biondi, conducting a much reduced Santa Cecilia Orchestra (28 strings, two trumpets and timpani) and Chorus, chooses the Dublin version too. But this is anything other than a chamber music Messiah. The sounds which Biondi gets from these forces is by turns muscular and tender. And sometimes both, even within the same bar. But how convincing he is in this.

When in the final chorus they sing, Blessing and honour, glory and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, they ought to sing standeth upon the rostrum, for hardly ever have singers and players performed with such wilfulness for their conductor. In a lifetime’s experience, I have never heard this work sound so thrilling.

I would have guessed that it would be risky to conduct this oratorio from the lead violin. But not so when his name is Fabio Biondi. He only changes his bow for a baton in the choruses. There was the Biondi purposefulness throughout, familiar to all those who know his Vivaldi recordings. But this was not his own group, Europa Galante, but selected players of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra.

The overture took off with brisk, business-like brio. Most of the tempi would have been considered too fast under another baton. But Maestro Biondi knows exactly what he is doing. And where he is going. That is another detail of his genius: the electrifying precision which he brings to every detail.

He also knows how to keep the show moving. This is a Messiah which never gets bogged down – a vice into which many another conductor has fallen. But Biondi is too aware of the drama of the piece. And that means the urgency with which the drama must be presented. He spent painstaking rehearsal time to get these players to make the right Baroque sound – one which, because it was new to them, sounding startlingly convincing. The accompaniment to Why do the Nations so Furiously Rage Together? bristled with drama. I was sitting too far away to see if he got the players to attach mutes for the beautifully effective Behold and See – an unexpected haunting, zither-like sound.

Fabio Biondi knows string instruments like no other conductor. It is this which makes his Messiah unique.

Ciro Visco had done a wonderful job in preparing the Chorus. Thrilling as the strings were, this is predominantly a choral work. The Santa Cecilia Chorus do not sound entirely comfortable in the English language. But some blemishes of diction were easily superseded by their virtuosity of the florid passages – efficiency which puts any British Chorus to shame. For unto us a Child is Born tripped along with joyous ease. I used to lie awake at night inventing exercises for the chorus to get the right articulation on these notes. But Italian singers have this technique already in their throats and chests. Handel may have been a German naturalised English, but he was quintessentially an Italian composer. Biondi and Visco recognise this. And appropriately, they celebrate it.

Romina Basso was a tragic mistake as the contralto soloist. (Biondi seemed to let all the soloists go their own way, which was his only mistake.) To begin with, she is a lightweight mezzo-soprano and not a contralto. I found myself yearning for the rich tones of Gladys Ripley or Norma Proctor. Worse: Miss Basso introduces a showbiz element into her performance, flinging her arms all about her and looking as though she is about to burst into a tap dance. Moreover, her English teacher must have been a cockney, so that for instance, the word day comes out as doy.

Jeremy Ovenden has a very attractive tenor voice with perfect diction and a dedicated understanding of the drama of what he is singing. He can sometimes sound a little underpowered. In this, I have to defend him, however, by being in agreement with my friend, the distinguished critic, Andrea Penna, who bemoaned the performance’s taking place in the Sala Santa Cecilia with its two thousand eight hundred seats. Far too big for what should have been an intimate Messiah. Heddle Nash, who for me was the greatest of all English tenors, used to sing this part, and Jeremy Ovenden is in the same tradition, with an extremely attractive projection of tone.

My model for the soprano soloist will always remain Isobel Baillie, who was Scottish and specialised in oratorio. Hers was the most limpid tone you ever heard. Caroline Sampson comes very close to this ideal. Her delivery is well-oiled and she has the right vocal technique to turn all Handel’s demanding corners. Rejoice greatly was less glitzy than some deliveries, but I personally like this and much aided by Biondi, she was thoroughly involved in her performance. I know that my Redeemer liveth was as touching as Baillie’s in its tenderness.

Vito Priante has a perfect declamatory delivery which much of the bass part demands: the words clearly focused and the tone rich and round. He circumvented the virtuosity of Why do the Nations with aplomb. The trumpet shall sound was beautifully clear-voiced and filled the giant hall. A word of praise too for Omar Tomasoni – the Santa Cecilia trumpeter, who was equally clear-voiced with a fine ringing tone.

This performance has come too late to be included in the list of the finest performances in Rome of 2011. Otherwise it would be there.

Jack Buckley