Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a performance of Handel’s ageless, indomitable Messiah. Perhaps because Part I deals so sensitively and beautifully with the nativity, or that its journey through the Passion is brief, and consistently piqued by hope, or possibly it is the reassurance of many old favourites that crop up throughout each of the three parts, but Messiah has become a stalwart both in the festive season and beyond.
Handel wrote this, his most famous oratorio, in the late summer of 1741 after a disastrous opera season and a failed concert series sabotaged by his rivals. As 2016 has revealed itself to be a year of political turmoil, social unrest and international conflict, Handel’s personal situation resonates somewhat with a contemporary audience, and his story of hope and celebration in the life of the Messiah is one that is particularly pertinent today.
There is no-one better placed in recent times perhaps to tell this story than the orchestra and choir of Les Arts Florissants, directed by William Christie. Their 1993 recording was a new take on Messiah – one could dare to say a very French take; the lightness of touch and sensitivity was not unusual in conception, but far exceeded anything before it in its execution. Replacing a lusty full-throated massed choir with a polished and clean approach with its relatively small ensemble, the choir of Les Arts Florissants have well and truly stamped their name on the works of Handel amongst others, accompanied by their stylish Baroque orchestra.
Polished, deft and attentive, Les Arts Florissants deliver in concert the same slickness that we have come to expect from their impressive array of recordings. And yet. Messiah requires real energy, commitment to both text and tricky fugal passages and a real sense of liveliness, which was lacking in the slightly lacklustre ensemble of clearly fine singers at the Barbican. Not a note was out of place, and each run was a string of pearls; but the whole affair felt artificial, strained, lacking the heart that is so desperately needed for a successful rendition, and which makes even the most haphazard choral society shine in numbers that are surely as much fun to sing as they are to listen to. The sheer exquisite beauty in the sotto voce beginning of the choral number "Since by man came death" failed to translate to a real vivid contrast, “by man came also the resurrection”.
It was an ennui that threatened to engulf the fine cast of soloists, but each managed to break through. Soprano Katherine Watson started a little straight-laced, but relaxed beautifully for the gentle yet stoic "I know that my Redeemer liveth". Fellow soprano Emmanuelle de Negri followed a curt set of nativity recitatives with a breathtaking "Rejoice greatly", and both Sam Boden and Konstantin Wolff grew in colour and confidence throughout the evening. The sole exception was Carlo Vistoli, called in at late notice to replace counter-tenor Tim Mead, who perhaps didn’t get the stiff-upper-lip memo; each of his recitatives and airs were hugely and perhaps overly dramatic, and his lower register suffered from his over-exuberance. Although his obvious excitement was refereshing, there is surely a middle ground.
The orchestra alone were immune from any hints of listlessness. Their Pastorale was greatly enjoyable, well-paced and balanced, and their accompaniment to the bass air “Why do the nations so furiously rage together” had a level of urgency that was refreshing and vibrant. The brief entrances of the horns and trumpets gave a boost to the entire ensemble, who were clearly as well disciplined as their vocal counterparts.
Christie, ably directing one of his signature works, did not appear to be at ease for much of the concert. Messiah, even with an interval, is very long, the Barbican was packed, and it is flu season; audience noise and coughing was not unduly loud, but provoked several glares from the maestro, which broke some of the spell he was trying so hard to create. But this is perhaps a sign of his perfectionism, which is to be applauded when reflected in such a polished performance. The musicians and singers of Les Arts Florissants alongside their director and invited soloists are clearly highly professional and technically superb, and were duly rapturously received – and despite the slight lack of energy, it was impossible not to smile as we leapt to our feet for the Hallelujah Chorus. It is Christmas, after all.
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