Between the 21st and 23rd of December, Bachtrack tells me that there are no fewer than 21 performances of Handel’s Messiah happening around the world. But Richard Egarr, soloists, the Academy of Ancient Music and Chorus, did much to distinguish theirs at the Barbican this week.

Richard Egarr © Marco Borggreve
Richard Egarr
© Marco Borggreve

That night, Egarr could probably lay rightful claim to being the hardest-working musician in London. Goodness knows where he gets the energy from: he was never still, jumping up and down from harpsichord to direct the band, bouncing around the stage, playing harpsichord with one hand and conducting with the other. He even found time between movements to chide an audience more bronchial than a casting call for La bohème.

Egarr’s movements were not mindless chivvying along knackered musicians, but integral to a performance that fizzed. Egarr and the AAM gave us miraculous, alchemical changes in colour and texture, an unresting musical surface of dancing lights. Brisk tempi helped aid dramatic cohesion. “He trusted in God” was sung with staccato, breathless urgency, more atmospheric and faster than I’d ever heard it. The economical forces of the AAM choir – just seventeen singers – let us hear Handel’s diaphanous textures in all their glory, and chorus and orchestra held back from the more obvious forte climaxes to make the big moments really land, which they did (“For Unto Us a Child is Born” positively sparkled). 

Reginald Mobley’s airs and pastorals were exquisite, warm and focused in every register, and turned to high drama when borne aloft by the AAM’s frenzied strings in “But Who May Abide”. Christopher Purves gave as drama and mystery in the bass recitatives, particularly, “For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth”, and was clearly having a great time, nodding and singing along. Thomas Hobbs gave us fire and fury in “Thou Shalt Break Them”, considerably warming up in Part II. 

Messiah’s most searing moments are when it reveals the viciousness human beings direct towards each other, and the pain and guilt we should experience in recognising this truth. “He was bruised for our iniquities”, the chorus sings, basses straining for a dissonant high D flat. The wash of relief we experience at the end of Messiah is the culmination of its musical and spiritual reconciliation of our worst and better natures. It is a hard journey.

But Messiah has also historically been a pretext for community-making through music, in the countless amateur and local performances put on, for charitable and ritual purposes, every year. An important component of that evening was hearing and seeing the fruits of one of the AAM’s outreach projects: a creative recomposition of the music and text of Messiah, coordinated by composer Hannah Conway, deploying the AAM forces alongside children from across London. 

Messiah, Who? A Young Known Voice sounded accessible, full of light, direct in expression. Conway explained the background to the project at the beginning. This was all rather redundant because the kids on stage sang and spoke defiantly and joyfully, and the politics of the piece were perfectly explicit: tolerance and diversity good, Brexit and Trump bad, young people are the future. 

For this reason it was perhaps a little saccharine, but it’s Christmas, and an affirmative message about the world from some children who had clearly been brought together by Handel’s music is surely unobjectionable. It was a fresh way to frame the performance of a war horse like this, and after all, Messiah is about change, newness, the possibility of another world: its most unearthly moment is perhaps the bass recitative “Behold, I tell you a mystery”.

Despite Messiah’s fame and fortune, it is a still a living thing into which we project the antagonisms of the contemporary moment. Handel, a German migrant, wrote Italianate music for an English audience living through a crisis in political leadership and seismic cultural change. Much more than an annual outing to warm the festive cockles, this Messiah channeled something difficult and febrile. The programme told us to watch this space for a recording. Consider my breath baited.

*****