A Less than Earth-Shattering Messiah

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Messiah: Sophie Bevan (soprano); Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano); John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Ashley Roches (baritone); Chorus and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Robert Howarth (director). Barbican Hall, London, 9.12.2014 (CC)


There was much to admire in this Messiah, certainly, and yet something of the greatness of the work failed to come across. This is no slip of a piece: Handel takes time to ponder on these weighty matters (in recognition that messiahs don’t appear every day, even if in the Christmas period Handel Messiahs might: in fact there was another one the very next night over at the Barbican featuring the Academy of Ancient Music). While I am not one to advocate the old-style multiple-choirs approach to Handel’s most famous and most excerpted score, a choir of approximately thirty members, as here, sounds mostly like some sort of expanded chamber choir and perhaps will never really capture the grandeur of ‘For unto us a child is born’ and the Hallelujah chorus (in which they were nearly drowned out for a moment by the sound of most of the audience standing up in some sort of Pavlov dog response, a strange custom that should be sweet but actually is rather uncomfortable and decidedly interruptive). But, in balance, the more intimate moments were often lovely.

The soloists, seated at the side of the orchestra and obediently trotting forth for their various solos, were a mix of the experienced and the not-so-much so. Catherine Wyn-Rogers, a familiar name from the Coliseum, was a somewhat matronly mezzo soloist, her tone tending towards the contralto even if her lower register did not have the strength of someone properly of that range. There was much to admire, though. Her ‘But who shall abide’ brought much joy, and there was hushed radiance to ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive’ but maybe her triumph was ‘He was despised’, a true and proper depiction of sorrow.  John Mark Ainsley, while not on his absolute top form, nevertheless brought much presence and style, kicking things off with a ‘Comfort ye, my people’ that was almost as svelte as his suit.

Of the two newcomer soloists, it was Sophie Bevan that truly impressed with her fresh sound and purity of tone. She was a musical joy from start to finish, and in her case it really is tough to select highlights such was her consistency. Perhaps her fluent delivery in ‘Rejoice greatly’ is the foremost contender?. The baritone, Ashley Riches, a Jette Parker artist at the Royal Opera House from 2012-14, was the most frustratingly contradictory of the quartet of soloists. He certainly had the technique for speedy runs, and the sense of narration in the recitatives was probably finest of them all. Yet his sound lacked some depth; he perhaps tried to compensate, fairly successfully in the event, by pure energy in ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together?’. Unfortunately ‘The trumpet shall sound’ lacked majesty, with the ear constantly focussing on the excellent contributions of trumpeter David Blackadder.

Robert Howarth’s tempi were carefully and convincingly chosen and the OAE played with the technical polish and panache one expects from them. Yet as one of Handel’s towering masterpieces – and he wrote a lot of masterpieces – Messiah deserves a performance that reverberates across days or even weeks. Alas, this experience was not that earth-shattering.

Colin Clarke

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