There’s an old joke among musicians about a fiddle player who dreamt he was playing Messiah and woke up and found that he was. He wouldn’t have lasted five minutes at London’s Barbican yesterday evening; no one could possibly have coasted through this electric performance of Handel’s ubiquitous masterpiece by the Britten Sinfonia, its choir and a stellar line-up of soloists – Sophie Bevan, Iestyn Davies, Allan Clayton and Roderick Williams.

Sophie Bevan © Sussie Ahlburg
Sophie Bevan
© Sussie Ahlburg

It’s become commonplace for Baroque music to be directed from the harpsichord, the player/conductor moulding the music while the chamber organ puts in most of the keyboard continuo. It’s an altogether different experience when the direction comes from the leader of the orchestra. An occasional wave of the bow apart, soloists, choir and band must live on their wits, listening intently to one another, feeling their way instinctively, their musical antennae alert at all times.

Under Jaqueline Shave’s spirited and intelligent direction, the rewards were immense. Freed from the need to slavishly follow a conductor, Britten Sinfonia Voices communicated directly with the audience, heightening the drama of their urgent tale. Ground rules on tempi, dynamics and diction laid down at rehearsal paid off handsomely, and never to the detriment of spontaneity and creativity. Pace, though, was a problem. Momentum sagged when soloists walked to centre stage to sing; you longed for each number to flow seamlessly, to maintain the energy.

But there was no doubting the vividness of the storytelling – key to the success of any Messiah. Tenor Allan Clayton set the tone with a stylish “Comfort ye, my people”, quickly followed by soprano Sophie Bevan announcing the birth of Christ with her exciting “And suddenly, there was with the angel”, bringing a radiant response from the chorus and trumpeters (amusingly popping out at the back of the stage like a couple of cuckoos in a clock). Her “Rejoice greatly” cracked along at an exhilarating pace, the semiquavers tumbling over one another in the race to bring the good news.

But it’s not long before we are plunged into the despair of the Passion and the searing alto aria “He was despised”, sung so eloquently by Iestyn Davies, his da capo decoration so tasteful and effortless, the voice clean and pure right through the register. The chorus responded with their biting “Surely, he has borne our griefs” before a surprisingly suave and legato “And with his stripes”.

Roderick William’s soft-grained baritone contained “The people that walked in darkness” and “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” in a controlled demonstration of his supreme technique, but in “The trumpet shall sound” that same tactic was less successful. It’s true that the clue lies in the title – let the trumpet do the work – but even while this reading was gloriously musical and flexible, its lack of firepower ultimately diminished its impact. It was left to tenor Clayton to provide the pyrotechnics. His “Thou shalt break them” was thrilling in its attack and incisive delivery.

Sophie Bevan’s “I know that my redeemer liveth” and “If God be for us” were pure, honeyed delight, before the choir took us into the final chorus and a nice touch: the Amen fugue began unaccompanied, allowing us to hear each line clearly carefully delineated by these exceptional singers.

The sell-out audience were on their feet in moments, cheering players and singers to the rafters, perhaps grateful that these world-class performers had driven Brexit from their minds for a blissful few hours, and that Christmas could finally begin.