William Christie and his ensemble Les Arts Florissants (or The blooming arts – a reference to an opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier) visited the Hungarian capital to perform Handel’s Messiah in the exceptional acoustics of the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall. Both venue and performance shared an overwhelming feeling of opulence; however, while the Concert Hall (colloquially known as Müpa) is strikingly expansive, Christie’s reading showed an intimate, almost introverted presentation of Handel’s English-language oratorio. It used a chorus of 24 singers and a marginally larger instrumental ensemble, making it not only similar in size to some of the original productions, but also placing it far away from the popular ‘sing-along’ mass productions of this work. One of the obvious differences between the two approaches is the question of volume and Christie’s orchestra and chorus did not make any effort to project any louder than was feasible. In fact, the almost conversational approach of the singers, their natural declamation of the text and the intimacy of the whole ensemble’s journey hinged partly on their ability to draw the capacity audience to listen, and to listen carefully. For this audience became privileged to learn that “For unto us a child is born” and for a few hours escape the syrupy jingles of the crowded shopping centres outside.

William Christie © János Posztós | Müpa Budapest
William Christie
© János Posztós | Müpa Budapest
This intimacy was apparent right from the opening Sinfonia which sounded gentle and inviting, rather than exact and dry, as it is also occasionally heard. It continued with the tenderly announced message of “Comfort ye”, delivered with exquisite technique by tenor Samuel Boden. Less convincing was bass Konstantin Wolff’s delivery of “Thus saith the Lord” with his somewhat unclear diction and untidiness in the fast semiquaver passages.

Christie’s attention to detail was compelling. As always, he conducted without a baton, with simple but expressive hand movements which hardly ever indicated beats in the traditional sense but brought out inner parts, controlled the balance and thus helped the audience to understand the significance of the individual numbers. Text and music formed a firm alliance in his interpretation and thus, both verbal and musical sentences made perfect sense. The clarity and elegance of his phrasing of the musical lines was unquestionable, even if the sequence of individual phrases seemed to remain static at times, instead of forming a directional flow in some of the larger fugues or chorus numbers.

His nuanced concept of the role of continuo was particularly impressive. Practically every number offered a slightly different instrumentation of the continuo section, selected from cello (or cellos), double bass, harpsichord, organ and bassoon. Countertenor Carlo Vistoli’s naturally flowing first aria “But who may abide” was, for example, splendidly accompanied by not one, but two cellos and harpsichord. This was not only unusual because of the absence of the lower octave offered traditionally by a double bass, but also because of the technical challenges of two cellos needing to play in perfect unison – a task performed exemplarily on this occasion. The alternative use of organ and harpsichord added further colour to the orchestration of the continuo, as did other occasions when the double basses were left out to lighten the sound of the ensemble.

Les Arts Florissants in Müpa © János Posztós | Müpa Budapest
Les Arts Florissants in Müpa
© János Posztós | Müpa Budapest

The orchestra not so much followed Christie’s hand movements but used them with alert attention as reminders for finely executed nuances. Two splendid solos are well worth mentioning here: the sympathetic flexibility and warmly resonant tone of the solo violin was a perfect partner to soprano Katherine Watson’s eloquent singing in “How beautiful are the feet” and one of the highlights of the evening: the bass aria “The trumpet shall sound” was introduced with victorious elegance by the solo trumpet, who maintained a warm yet supple sound, seldom heard among brass players, during the obbligato part of the aria in absolute harmony with the voice and his string playing colleagues.

As on his recording, Christie used two soprano voices in this concert. Though different in their vocal timbre, both Katherine Watson and Emmanuelle de Negri sang with incisive and warm tone, the latter delivering memorable moments in the crisp and demanding runs of “Rejoice greatly”.

The most outstanding of so many great protagonists of this performance was Christie’s impeccably trained chorus. Its vocal discipline and technique paid off handsomely in the extremely difficult semiquaver runs of many number; its excitement brought “Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God” to true jubilation, and the hushed unaccompanied (a cappella) beginning of “Since by man came death” was poignant in the extreme. With the orchestra extended with trumpets, horns and timpani, the final fugal Amen brought the evening to a triumphant close.