Enjoyable Messiah Despite Cuts and Brisk Tempi

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Messiah: Rhiannon Llewellyn (soprano), Angharad Lyddon (contralto), Oliver Johnston (tenor), Johnny Herford (bass), International Staff Songsters of the Salvation Army, Welsh Sinfonia / Mark Eager (conductor), Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff. 1.12.2012 (PCG)

Over the last fifty years Messiah (not The Messiah, please!) has been progressively stripped of all the accumulated fat of the massive festival performances of the Victorian era, to stand revealed in its original pristine form as one of the greatest masterpieces of the Baroque period. Seeing this first performance of the Christmas season in Cardiff (more are inevitably following) one’s original suspicions were that this would be a large-scale performance using a substantial Salvation Army choir; but in the event it was decidedly ‘Messiah-lite’, using a choir of less than thirty singers and a chamber orchestra to match. The removal of the excess cholesterol extended however to a considerable trimming of the score. We lost not only the ‘standard’ excisions in Parts Two and Three, but also such well-known and well-loved numbers as The people that walked in darkness, He trusted in God and even How beautiful are the feet. One could not help feeling that it might have been better to start the performance earlier and give us more of the score. What remained was delivered briskly, and there were only two points at which the speeds adopted by Mark Eager seemed excessively fast: in His yoke is easy, where the chorus were unable to clarify Handel’s marvellously cheeky offbeat accents, and Behold the Lamb of God, where the double-dotted lamb seemed to be remarkably frisky. Otherwise the choir coped well with the (one suspects) unaccustomed tempi, although in All we like sheep the tenors for one moment threatened to go astray rather too literally.

The choir, although small, provided plenty of weight when needed, with a thrilling account of the Hallelujah chorus, where in conjunction with the trumpets and timpani they made full use of the magnificent cathedral echo. The first and second violins, bunched together at one side of the performing area, could have been split left and right to the advantage of the contrapuntal writing, but they nevertheless managed to make their individual lines clear. The Pifa was given in Handel’s own abridged form, which given the absence of oboes tended to undermine its pastoral character. And the omission of the mocking chorus He trusted in God left the tenor’s Thy rebuke hath broken his heart sounding somewhat unmotivated; Jennings was very careful in his original libretto to avoid any such disjunction in his otherwise discursive text.

The young solo singers made a very personable team. Rhiannon Llewellyn lost How beautiful are the feet, but was compensated by being awarded a soprano version of But who may abide? – although Handel’s original writing for low voice sounded uncomfortable in this transposition – and the tenor recitative and aria But thou didst not leave his soul in Hell. She opted for Handel’s delightful 12/8 version of Rejoice greatly, although she missed her first entry in the da capo section; while she recovered quickly, this may have unsettled her with the result that at one point in I know that my Redeemer liveth she drifted briefly into the wrong key. Angharad Lyddon, a mezzo-soprano despite her deeply reverberant contralto tone,  had some difficulty projecting in the lower octave; but in He was despised she made full use of the bitterness of the words (despite being deprived of her da capo) and it was surprising to hear such a substantial sound coming from such a small frame.

Oliver Johnston was nicely warm and full-toned, not the small-voiced cathedral tenor we sometimes hear, and was properly dramatic in Thou shalt break them. He managed some nice ornamentation in his opening recitative and aria. Johnny Herford suffered most from the cuts made in the score; after his recitative Thus saith the Lord he was left with nothing to sing until Why do the nations? (which in its turn was shorn of its final section leading into the omitted chorus Let us break their bonds asunder). This left him relatively un-warmed-up when he launched into The trumpet shall sound (given, unusually, with the middle section and full da capo), which may have accounted for an occasional tentative feeling to some of his ornamentation in the repeat (and a slip from the solo trumpet). But his voice is very good, and reminded me uncannily of the beautifully rounded sound of John Carol Case in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed I would look forward to hearing all these soloists again, and I am sure I will.

Despite the cuts, then, this was a thoroughly enjoyable rendition of Messiah; and even those cuts had the advantage of allowing the performance to finish in time for me to get home by public transport. I just hope that later performances of the oratorio from other performers in this pre-Christmas season will be as much fun. A large audience certainly appreciated this one.

Paul Corfield Godfrey