At the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Ton Koopman led the Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra in a very distinctive and personal Messiah. For me as for many others, Messiah is the definitive marker of the Christmas season: the celebrations truly begin here. Koopman led his choir and orchestra in a celebratory spirit, and undoubtedly got the audience in a festive mood with this beloved oratorio.

Ton Koopman conducts the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra © Camile Schelstraete
Ton Koopman conducts the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra
© Camile Schelstraete

Handel’s Messiah exists in several versions, which fact also helps to keep this well-known work fresh. For this Christmas, Koopman chose to reconstruct the work as it was performed at its première in Dublin, in April 1742. Some pleasing features of this version included the soprano aria “Rejoice greatly, o daughter of Zion” being performed in triple time, which lent it a dancey character. The bass took the aria “Thou art gone up on high” with great vitality, and the alto soloist took “He shall feed his flock”, which enhanced this aria’s mellow tenderness.

Koopman took a rattling pace throughout, and this was particularly noticeable in the no-holds-barred allegro of the “Hallelujah” chorus. I was interested that Koopman chose not to over-dot the dotted rhythms in the opening “Sinfony”, since ornamentation in both orchestra and choir was a feature throughout. The frequent interpolation of appoggiaturas, divisions and trills meant that this best known of works nevertheless felt fresh and personal, and I was pleased that Koopman allowed the choir to ornament so richly. They rose nobly to the occasion, executing communal trills and grace notes with skill.

The choir shone in choruses such as “For unto us a child is born”, with joyous energy and precision of enunciation. The overall approach to many of the choruses was light and vivacious, the choir executing fast passages deftly and phrasing away the cadences with lightness of touch. Koopman made much of dynamic contrast, bringing out the interplay of parts with sensitivity and flair. I enjoyed the lucent, creamy timbre of the strings and the full, warm sound of the orchestra overall, married with agility in the ornamentation. The bassoon was sprightly and warm in the chorus “His yoke is easy” and the trumpets made the most of “Glory to God” with joyful vivacity.

The soloists offered rather a mixed bag of musical approaches, which, while each artist had something interesting and personal to offer, gave a sense of inconsistency to the whole. English pronunciation was generally very fine, but there were a few slightly rocky moments, such as inconsistently matched vowels in the duets, and several moments of dubious intonation from almost everyone, usually at the beginning of movements.

Bass Klaus Mertens demonstrated a wonderful fullness and richness of tone. Where some basses might struggle marrying their full sound with the flexibility required for Baroque ornamentation practices, he showed marvellous agility, imagination and mastery of the style in the supple divisions and graces he added to the music. His interpretation of “The trumpet shall sound” was particularly fine, with easy, gracious cantabile.

Jörg Dürmüller brought a luscious, creamy lyricism to the tenor solos. He especially shone in the very lyrical moments such as the arioso “Behold and see if there be any sorrow”, and had a sense of real brilliance and excitement in his fast passages. The young countertenor Maarten Engeltjes has a beautiful, clear sound. Less experienced than the other soloists,  he was less confident in his stylistic approach, ornamenting less freely, and has yet to build power in the lower register, but his voice was shown to touching effect in arias such as “He shall feed his flock”.

The structure of the first part of Messiah, in which we hear several arias and recitatives of bass, tenor and alto before hearing the soprano, meant that the general aesthetic was well established before we heard soprano Johanette Zomer. The remarkable straightness and purity of her tone was much in evidence here, but came in marked contrast to the approaches of the other singers. Where the other singers allowed their own vibrato to arise organically out of their sound, Zomer’s vibrato was added consciously as an ornament. For some repertoire this approach has much to commend it: in this particular context, though it made for some graceful moments, overall it made me musically uncomfortable, since the stripping away of surrounding harmonics means one experiences the tuning differently. Since none of the other singers were using the same technical or musical approach, this meant that Zomer sometimes sounded out of tune purely by comparison. It seems only fair to say that while in this context I personally preferred the more lyrical approach, the audience responded to Zomer’s interpretation with great pleasure.

The disagreement between different schools of thought on historical performance practice thus somewhat marred the interpretative unity of the whole for me. Nevertheless, the general quality of the musicians and musicianship involved was indisputable, and made for a very enjoyable evening overall.