An Almost Complete Messiah with Oddly Positioned Soloists

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Messiah: Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Delphine Galou (mezzo-soprano), Topi Lehtipuu (tenor), Matthew Brook (bass), BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales, Françoix-Xavier Roth (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 14.12.2012 (PCG)

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed for this site another Cardiff performance of Messiah, given in Llandaff Cathedral by Welsh Sinfonia forces under Mark Eager, and complained there about the swingeing cuts that were made in the score. I have subsequently been informed that these cuts were rendered necessary by the demands of the Cathedral authorities for substantial additional payment if the promoters of the concert did not vacate the building by 11.00. (This is perturbing, as such demands would effectively render the Cathedral out of bounds for any lengthy concert by other performers as well.) Here, with the BBC broadcasting Messiah live on Radio 3, we were given the score at practically full length despite the fact that the transmission overran by some fifteen minutes.

In fact, what we were given here was effectively the ‘standard’ Prout edition of Messiah, with the proper decoration and a couple of additions – the full da capo version of How beautiful are the feet (with the version of Their sound has gone out for soprano rather than chorus), and the extended version of the duet O death, where is thy sting – and only one cut, of the middle section and da capo of The trumpet shall sound (which, oddly enough, the Llandaff performance had given at full length, as well as some of Handel’s alternative settings). The BBC National Chorus of Wales is a very large body of some 120 singers, but here we were given a performance by around two-thirds of that number with a large chamber-sized orchestra. In other words, this was quite a large-scale Messiah by modern standards.

It was clear however that despite the large forces involved François-Xavier Roth was aiming at a fairly ‘authentic’ traversal of the score. The orchestra added oboes and bassoons to the string body, which added definition to the sound; but the addition of a theorbo was of dubious benefit – one could see the player working extremely hard, but he was hardly ever audible, except when he anticipated the opening chord of the overture. The overall sound of the orchestra was light and buoyant throughout, bouncing merrily on their way with plenty of body when needed.

Elin Manahan Thomas substituted for an indisposed Susan Gritton at only a couple of days’ notice. Last week when she sang Finzi’s Dies natalis in the small but resonant Hoddinott Hall she seemed to have difficulty in projecting her middle register over the string orchestra; here, in the larger and drier acoustic of St David’s, she sounded clearer and much more confident, floating her ornamentation with charm and freedom. This was a winning and engaging performance. Her diction, however, was sometimes unclear, although she delivered a properly joyful account of I know that my Redeemer liveth.

Even less clear was the English enunciation of the French mezzo-soprano Delphine Galou. This artist has specialised in Handelian roles, but mainly in the Italian language; and in O thou that tallest her delivery of lines such as “say unto the cities of Judah” disclosed some very Gallic-sounding oo sounds. However she delivered a beautifully expressive and breathless “Arise, shine” in the same aria, and engaged fully with the text in the “shame and spitting” section of He was despised, although here her soft shading in the main body of the aria was sometimes covered by the orchestra. Even though her musical performance and agility were admirable, I cannot believe that an English-speaking performer was not available.

Topi Lehpituu, despite his Finnish ancestry and name, was born in Australia, and his English was therefore predictably excellent. He too gave us some delightful shading of the text in Ev’ry valley, but he was clearly indisposed although most unfairly no announcement to that effect was made; he was forced to leave the stage for lengthy periods during Parts One and Two. He sounded decidedly out of sorts in his sequence of recitatives and arias in Part Two, but recovered somewhat later although he was clearly taxed to his limits in Thou shalt break them.

One problem from which all the soloists suffered was the manner in which they were placed, not positioned at the front of the stage, but standing directly in front of the strings and therefore sometimes shielded from the audience by the energetic movements of the conductor. This not only removed the singers from direct contact with the listener – sometimes they were invisible from the middle of the stalls where I was seated, and the sound was similarly veiled as the conductor moved to and fro in front of them – but it also raised some safety concerns, especially for the ladies who had to carefully manoeuvre their long dresses around the orchestral music stands as they moved to and from their designated positions.

And as a result, too, we could not at times see Matthew Brook’s expressive face as he dramatically delivered his baleful arias with warm and substantial tone. But it was a mistake to ask the solo trumpeter to stand for The trumpet shall sound. This is not a duel between the two soloists, and it doomed the singer’s attempts at subtlety in the delivery of the text. It was clearly the conductor’s decision that in the recitative For behold, darkness covered the earth quite so precipitately; but it stripped away the essential air of mystery in this passage. But on the other hand the performance of Why do the nations was really exciting and crisp.

The chorus too was often superbly dramatic, and the use of a sharp crescendo from piano to forte by the female voices in “Who is this King of Glory?” was excellent and effective. On the other hand, the employment of similar expressive devices in the Hallelujah chorus was not so convincing, and was positively damaging to the grandeur of the music in the second statement of “Worthy is the Lamb.” What was missing in the performance became apparent only in the closing bars of the Amen, where we heard almost for the first time the magnificent sound of the choir singing with sustained full-voiced expressive legato as they delivered the soaring lines at a very broad tempo. Before this they had been too frequently reduced to a staccato and marcato style of delivery which is of course authentically baroque, but which lessened the sense of majesty which is also clearly a part of Handel’s conception.

The strings of the orchestra were treated in places in a concerto grosso style, with the desks of violins reduced to a smaller body of solo players in certain passages. This paid dividends in the nicely muted and very expressive Pastoral Symphony and as the angels departed back into Heaven at the end of Glory to God, but was less effective at the beginning of Surely he hath borne our griefs. We had hand-tuned timpani played with hard sticks in the authentic style, but the result lacked sufficient distinction in the extraordinary passage in Worthy is the Lamb where the timpani have almost an obligato solo accompanying the male voices of the chorus – although they came through better later. The violins were bunched together on the left of stage, which did not lend clarity to their sometimes contrapuntal passages.

The audience was large – although the hall was not completely full – but it was a clear mistake by the management to allow latecomers to take their seats after the performance had started; some twenty or so people trooped in as late as And he shall purify. The disturbance this caused will probably not be evident on the broadcast sound – apart from the live relay on Radio 3 (available for seven days on i-player), we were told that a recording of the performance would be transmitted by several foreign stations over the next few days – but was not fair on the members of the audience who had taken the trouble to get to the hall on time despite the heavy Christmas traffic.

Paul Corfield Godfrey