David Watkin leads an unassuming but enjoyable account of Messiah

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Messiah: Harriet Eyley (soprano), Jess Dandy (contralto), Stuart Jackson (tenor), James Newby (baritone), Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge (director, organ: Richard Pinel), Britten Sinfonia / David Watkin (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 16.12.2021. (MB)

Britten Sinfonia’s Messiah at the Barbican Hall

Messiahs take many forms. They did during the eighteenth century; they did in the nineteenth; they did in the twentieth; despite the more or less complete victory of ‘authentic’ — was ever the term less apt than for this work? — performance practices in the rest of Handel’s œuvre, they have continued to do so in the twenty-first. Sadly, even tragically, the video of that inimitable ‘Handel meets Pop with Messias’, starring the still-more-inimitable Robbin Casey, seems to have vanished not only from YouTube but the planet. (Please do let me know if you have a copy of the original broadcast!) But we still have options ranging from Mozart to McCreesh, from Beecham to Britten Sinfonia. The small forces employed here, including a tiny orchestra (strings and a choir of only twenty-six (men and women but not boys of Jesus College), were at least in part a response to the dread virus. They were perhaps not what one might have imagined ideal for the Barbican and would probably have worked better at home in the warmer acoustic of that most magical of Cambridge chapels. One’s ears nonetheless adjusted to aesthetics as well as to pragmatics. Not only would it be churlish and pointless to object too strongly; it would also arguably ignore the fact that pragmatics have almost always been an important part of aesthetics. Handel, after all, never composed a Helicopter-Quartet.

That a musician such as David Watkin, so well versed in what, for better or worse, we have come to know as ‘historical performance’, would take an anti-Romantic, or perhaps better a non-Romantic, line should have come as little surprise. The Britten Sinfonia’s versatility is such that these players could doubtless follow any lead with equal relish. Nicely detailed playing in, for instance, ‘But who may abide the day of his coming?’ permitted of considerable instrumental drama, whatever the numbers involved. So too, naturally, did that greatest of musical rarities: a true and fine contralto voice, in this case Jess Dandy’s. When it came to ‘He was despised…,’ the plainness of some of the orchestral playing was a little underwhelming, yet Dandy’s voice and interpretation continued to carry the performance.

David Watkin (conductor), Britten Sinfonia, Harriet Eyley (soprano) and Jess Dandy (contralto)

In any case, Watkin’s direction was in general pragmatic, clearly aiming to build a performance founded not upon an ideal, but on the forces in front of him. If I suspect I shall never share ‘period’ predilection for ending numbers in what I hear as merely perfunctory fashion, I watched and listened eagerly to hear the way Watkin worked with his soloists, no diktat handed down from above, but rather making the most of Stuart Jackson’s dramatic, even operatic flair, Harriet Eyley’s appealingly bell-like soprano, or James Newby’s rich yet agile baritone. So too was this the case for the young choral musicians, for many of whom the past twenty-one months will have been particularly trying. If ‘All we like sheep’ bobbed along amiably, if little more, the winning, Saul-like responsorial singing of ‘Lift up your heads, O ye gates’, and agile passage work of ‘Let us break their bonds asunder’ duly impressed, as did the grandeur, finally achieved, of the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus. Most stood, although one peculiar soul, who had disturbed ‘How beautiful are the feet’ and a couple of other numbers with incredibly noisy crisp-eating elected instead to film the performance on his telephone. Music-making is itself a human good, a human necessity: something none of us should ever forget again, even in the unlikely event further ‘restrictions’ do not return.

Coloratura was a distinct strength to all concerned: not only ‘in itself’, but as put to dramatic use; so too was stylish and varied ornamentation. This is an oratorio, one can readily forget, that is simply scored. In an unassuming performance such as this, one welcomes perhaps all the more the coming of bright trumpets in ‘Glory to God in the highest’, certainly as much as telling, if often subtle, shifts between numbers in tempo. One size has never fit all, and never will. And if this will never, should never, come across as a dramatic, narrative oratorio in the mode of many of Handel’s, there was much to enjoy in that mode too: Jackson fairly scourging with his voice (‘All they that see Him…’), at times coming across as Handel’s unconscious response to Bach’s Evangelists; Ryder’s tasteful intensification of vibrato for Christ’s resurrection in ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’; and Newby’s moving representation of words and theology, allied to equally fine trumpet-playing (Imogen Whitehead) in ‘The trumpet shall sound’. A euphonious final chorus served not only as fitting aesthetic culmination, but worked as a keenly felt moral metaphor for what we had seen, head, and God willing, participated in too. Amen.

Mark Berry

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