Messiah Just As Handel Would Have Wished It

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel: Messiah: Elizabeth Drury and Louise Prickett (sopranos), James Armitage and Jeremy Kenyon (altos), Peter Wilman and Alexei Winter (tenors), Julian Rippon and Paul Sheehan (basses), Devon Baroque / Jonathan Watts (director), Persephone Gibbs (leader); The Minster Church of St Andrew, Plymouth. UK 9.11. 2013 (PRB)


Paul Sheehan David Staff credit Philip R Buttall.jpg
Paul Sheehan David Staff credit Philip R Buttall

Most of us have probably encountered more performances of Handel’s Messiah before reaching middle-age than probably any other work. Yet few of us have been privileged to hear it live the way the composer actually intended. The reason for this paradox is simple. Choral societies have long since made the work their own, and take apparent delight in putting it on often with well over a hundred voices, using large orchestral resources, and set at today’s slightly higher pitch, which can compromise all but the very best singers – both soloists and choral sections alike. Furthermore, as an oratorio well-known to most choir members, there is sometimes an in-built tendency to rely on memory (occasionally imperfect), and watch the conductor only when the mood takes them.

Handel in fact wrote Messiah for modest vocal and instrumental forces, with optional settings for many of the individual numbers. In the years after his death, the work was adapted for performance on a much larger scale, with giant orchestras and choirs. In other efforts to update it, its orchestration was revised and amplified by, among others, Mozart. Indeed, Irish playwright and music critic, George Bernard Shaw, writing in the second half of the nineteenth century, said: (Why) does not somebody set up a thoroughly rehearsed and exhaustively studied performance of the Messiah … with a chorus of twenty capable artists? Most of us would be glad to hear the work seriously performed once before we die’.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, however, the trend has been towards reproducing a greater fidelity to Handel’s original intentions, although ‘big’ Messiah productions continue to form a staple diet of many large choral societies throughout the UK, and especially during Advent.

Devon Baroque’s insistence on the use of period instruments and contemporary playing practices is already well established and has been critically acclaimed. Few listeners coming to this for the first time can fail to be enthralled by the utterly different sound of a Baroque orchestra, and most will surely find it difficult to go back to overloaded symphonic performances, once the music is heard in this fashion.  But the real revelation in this Messiah came from the superb choir and soloists, even though a misnomer in itself, given that just eight voices – two to each part – took care of everything, from chorus, aria, duet, and recitative.

This, of course, has immediate dangers, as does the use of two string players to a part: a third performer’s voice or instrument tends to absorb any pitch or otherwise imperfections of the other two, ensuring a homogenous ensemble, rather than presenting two sounds distinguishable by ear. But conversely, while the voices must blend perfectly within the part, and when in combination, there needs to be sufficient variety in timbre when acting as soloist, unless merely one voice from each section is used exclusively, to create added musical interest.

In this, the eight members of Devon Baroque Voices carried off their part to sheer perfection, often producing a full choral sound that would have suggested a far larger ‘choir’ without looking. But the clarity of diction and perfect articulation in the faster contrapuntal choruses were both things that rarely, if ever, come across in the massed-choir format – rather like comparing the manoeuvrability of a small yacht with that of an oil-tanker. On the other hand, in Part Three’s Since by man came death…, director, Jonathan Watts, had simply repositioned his eight soloists, who, up to this point, presented  a left-to-right formation of paired voices starting with sopranos, by changing their order to form two double-quartets, used antiphonally, and to quite magical effect.

With so many highlights along the way, it would be difficult, if not somewhat invidious, to comment on each aria individually. Tenor, Peter Wilman got proceedings off to a fine start with his Every valley…, both male altos were in excellent voice in their respective contributions, But who may abide…and He was despised…, Julian Rippon’s Why do the nations… and Paul Sheehan’s The trumpet shall sound…were both impressive and declamatory. The remaining soloists proved equally assured throughout but, if, perhaps, one did emerge as an overall winner, albeit in a team of confirmed champions, it was soprano Elizabeth Drury, who managed to breath such a welcome freshness into Rejoice greatly…, an overly well-known aria which can so often pall because of its very familiarity, and which thus can suffer from the need to over-ornament the ‘da capo’ repeat, by way of a perceived compensation. In fact, the use of tasteful and appropriate ornamentation was a feature of the whole evening’s performance itself.

But none of this could have happened without the outstanding orchestral support from Devon Baroque, Watts has that rare ability to be able to coordinate, rather than control a performance, and this he does, from the harpsichord, with such minimal effort and avoidance of unnecessary gesture. In an earlier purely instrumental review, I had extolled the virtues of new leader, American-born violinist, Persephone Gibbs, whose total empathy with Watts is so eminently apparent, again without dominating the proceedings, yet still providing that vital link between director and performers, which, on this occasion additionally embraced the eight voices.

Again, it would be difficult to single any other individual orchestral contribution, but the highly-assured, yet in no way obtrusive playing from baroque-trumpeters, David Staff and Kate McClaughry, certainly deserves a mention in despatches. This quite magnificent performance should definitely win over the most ardent fan of ‘big-is-beautiful’ as far as Handel’s ever-popular oratorio is concerned. So splendidly supported, too, by the venue’s excellent acoustic, it could also surely have counted as Shaw’s necessary ‘one serious performance’ to be heard before we shuffle off this mortal coil.

And while performances of Messiah can usually bank on at least one ‘standing ovation’ – at the end of Part 2 for the Hallelujah chorus – on this occasion there was a far more spontaneous and heartfelt one at the end the end, something which, in fact, happened again at the second, and final performance given in nearby Totnes – a town in the South Hams which punches way above its size in many areas, especially cultural – and is close to Dartington, with its annual International Summer School, and The Arts at Dartington, which was co-associated with the presentation of both these events.

Clearly, like the good people of Plymouth, Totnesians had witnessed something new with the coming of this Messiah, and simply wanted to express this by their final gesture, to-a-man


Philip R Buttall



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