For generations, December has been the time for performing Handel’s Messiah, even if, originally, the score had nothing to do with celebrating Christmas. Premièred in Dublin in April 1742, this most admired of Handel’s oratorios has become extremely popular over time among both professional and amateur interpreters, to the point where there are documented performances where the ensemble of choristers and instrumentalists reached truly Pantagruelian dimensions.

The Trumpet Shall Sound: David Blackadder
© Mark Allan | Barbican

There is no way to congregate hundreds of performers in the dire times the world is currently traversing. Luckily for Saturday night’s streaming audience, this rendition of Messiah – part of “Live from Barbican”, a series of concerts that has recently been extended into 2021 – employed an ensemble of musicians numerically much closer to what the composer himself had in mind. Leading just 17 choristers and a small number of instrumentalists from the Academy of Ancient Music, director Richard Egarr was able to put together a performance that – full of energy and dynamism – succeeded in bringing forward with great transparency, restraint and delicacy the score’s wonderful musical tapestry. An almost complete rendition of the work (just a few repetitions were trimmed) avoided any hint of bombast. Leading from the harpsichord, Egarr outlined the variety of the rhythmic patterns and of the call-and-response segments, the sophistication of the chromatic transformations and, most of all, the extraordinary symbiosis between music and the dramatic text. The two purely instrumental segments in the first part – the opening and not too interesting Sinfony in the form of a French overture and the pastorale sounding Pifa – did not allow the AAM orchestra to shine too much. Nevertheless, the instrumentalists had other occasions to prove their mettle, from the first part’s “Glory to God in the highest” to the third’s “The trumpet shall sound” (featuring David Blackadder’s exquisite contribution). In general, the unobtrusive support that the orchestra – an ensemble that has been specialising for decades in rendering the intricacies of Baroque music – offered to the soloists and the overall blending between vocal and instrumental timbres were remarkable.

Iestyn Davies and the AAM
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Overall, the singing was of the best quality and the protagonists were able to convey a sense of narrative in a work in which Handel and his librettist, Charles Jennens, avoided introducing any specific characters. As almost always when he is on stage, countertenor Iestyn Davies outshone his collaborators. The range and expressiveness of his voice, his ability to bring attention to certain words and to switch effortlessly between moods were again in full display. His first air, “But who may abide the day of His coming”, was especially remarkable. Tenor Ben Johnson, his voice lacking a certain charisma, was less successful, despite commendable efforts and clear diction. The evening’s single female solo voice was Rowan Pierce, whose graceful, pure soprano provided a special quality to such arias as “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace”. In a more limited role, bass-baritone Ashley Riches, imbued his solos with warmth and a true sense of expectation (“The people that walked in darkness”).

The Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Despite the excellence of the soloists, the evening belonged to the Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music. Their voices perfectly balanced, with an acute sense of the polyphony underlining their singing in most of their dedicated numbers, the choristers easily proved that there is much more to be appreciated and remembered in this score than the always spirit-lifting “Hallelujah”. First and foremost, Handel’s Messiah has been – and still is – a message of hope, more relevant today than ever.

This performance was reviewed from the Barbican's live video stream