United Kingdom Handel, Messiah Carolyn Sampson (soprano); Iestyn Davies (countertenor); Allan Clayton (tenor); Robert Davies (bass); Britten Sinfonia Voices; Britten Sinfonia/Eamonn Dougan. Barbican Hall, London, 15.12.2015 (CC)
So, it’s that time of year again. Interestingly, both Iestyn Davis and Allan Clayton were soloists in another Britten Sinfonia Messiah back in 2008, covered by my colleague Melanie Eskenazi (here). For the present occasion the soloist line-up was graced by the ever-fabulous Carolyn Sampson; in addition, Robert Davies stood in for an indisposed Christopher Purves.
This was a modern instrument Messiah with scaled-down orchestra (double-bass, placed next to the bassoon behind the cellos). The warmth of sound of the opening bars indicated a modern approach (and, I am sure, made at least some of us wonder if we were in for a long evening); yet the Allegro had plenty of vim and, in addition, power. Eamonn Dougan throughout clearly had his ear on clarity; his generally brisk speeds seemed to imply that we might even exit the hall prior to the promised 10.05pm (for once the timing was a considered one, as the final chords sounded at 10.07pm). The “Pastoral Symphony” was notable for its excellent invocation of drone; in fact there were delights aplenty from the orchestra,
The chorus was also aware of clarity to a large degree, and could be lovely and bright of tone (arguably to a fault in the brightness stakes): “Glory to God in the highest” was a case in point, here with two trumpets poking out of a hole in the wall behind the chorus like so many seraphim. The airy delivery of “Lift up your heads, O ye gates” was most effective, as were the injection of Handelian drama in that same chorus and the added insistence at each repetition of the question “Who is this King of Glory?”. Unfortunately the final chorus “Worthy is the Lamb” and the concluding “Amen” could have been decidedly punchier.
It terms of soloists, it was perhaps ironic, if accidental, that the two outstanding ones (Carolyn Sampson and Iestyn Davies) were bunched together on the extreme stage left; the comparatively less satisfactory tenor and bass were placed on the right. Each soloist therefore had a little bit of exercise as they worked to centre-stage for their various arias.
Carolyn Sampson is a distinguished Handelian. Back in November 2004 over at St. Martin’s Lane, she was stunning in Semele (review). Everything she touched seemed special; it is telling that it is a recitative that gleans the first superlatives. The accompanied recitative, “And lo, the angel said unto them” found Sampson in clarion form. Perhaps she was heard at her finest in Part III’s “I know that my Redeemer liveth”. She seemed the ideal pairing in the upper frequencies with Iestyn Davies, whose expressive “He was despised” was one of the evening’s highlights (especially given the delicacy of the string accompaniment). Davies is one of the foremost counter-tenors, his confidence of delivery and attack massively impressive throughout.
Tenor Allan Clayton began very well, with “Every valley shall be exalted”, the melismas fluent and smooth; the choral take-up, “And the glory of God shall be revealed” introduced the Britten Sinfonia Voices, who clearly made every effort to ensure that lines were clearly and cleanly delivered. Clayton’s solos were always musically satisfying (once one had got over his distractingly festive red socks), yet he lacked the character of some of the other soloists.
The bass Robert Davies offered a curious performance. He was rather quiet in his recitative and aria, “For behold, darkness shall cover the Earth … The people that walked in darkness” (from the back of the stalls it did sound as if an attempt at restraint had gone too far). He found his vocal backbone for “The Trumpet Shall Sound”, joined by the crystal-clear trumpet of Paul Archibald. It was a pity “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” was blunted en route (the latter an especial shame, given the orchestra’s buzzing accompaniment).
The use of decorations in the second ‘A’ section of da capo arias was sparing, judicious and effective. This was an enjoyable if not hugely memorable Messiah, therefore. Incidentally, the British habit of standing for the “Hallelujah” chorus sits uneasily with this reviewer (at a guess 95% of the Barbican audience stretched their legs). It’s hugely disruptive and does it really serve a purpose? I blame King George II.