Handel’s Messiah has been helping musicians pay their rent in December for 250 years, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Maxim Emelyanychev were given two opportunities to earn their money from it on a mild December day in South Kensington.  

Benjamin Appl
© Uwe Arens | Sony Classical

The Royal Albert Hall is the ideal venue for the kinds of enormous Victorian community Messiahs that are utterly unfashionable, but presumably were enormous fun. It’s a place whose acoustic does not favour the contemporary practice of stripped-back and transparent approaches to Handel, and in this respect the RPO struck a compromise. Smaller forces of strings than usual, and pairs of oboes and trumpets alongside one bassoon, but mainly preferring modern instruments, except in the case of the timpani. Consequently their sound was polished and integrated, though still feeling a little too slight, and the artful eschewing of vibrato, whilst aesthetically justified, meant loss of sound in the cavernous space.  

Continuo was provided by the slightly obscured, though inventive and stylish, harpsichord of Claire Williams, whose embellishments were vivid but hard to hear. This was bolstered by the organ of Richard Pearce, who blended well with the ensemble in terms of volume and colour and adding some much-needed but unobtrusive heft. Emelyanchev also played harpsichord from time to time, bolstering some of the choruses, though from where I was seated this seemed to add visual rather than musical interest. Emelyanychev is certainly fascinating to watch – you can see his highly expressive and engaged efforts to shape volume and texture, often drawing out interesting things – but for all his energy the performance felt rather incoherent and under-rehearsed, with no decisive theological or artistic grasp of the story coming through. 

But the orchestral contributions were often thoughtful, with some excellent phrasing and shaping of dynamics, particularly in the Sinfonia and the Pastoral Symphony. Tempi were on the swift side, often sounding hasty rather than propulsive, and we burned through many of the faster sections much too quickly, whilst getting strangely bogged down in what felt like rather sluggish arias (“The people that walked in darkness” was foggy and unfocused). Some of this vigour did work, however: the dotted rhythms in the middle section of ‘He was despised’ were vivid and animating, as were the Allegro sections of “Since by man came death”. 

It’s a tiring time of year for musicians and this was reflected in the mixed contributions of the four soloists. Tenor Nick Pritchard was in good voice, balancing roundness of tone with emotional and expressive bite, and offering a creamy version of “Ev'ry valley shall be exalted”, and, untiring later in the work, a fiery “Thou shalt break them”, undaunted by its top notes. Soprano Anna Devin was in fulsome voice, with ample volume and control of colour; “I know that my Redeemer liveth” had an intimacy and fragility that belied that barn-like environs of the RAH. Mezzo-Soprano Anna Harvey sang a well-shaped “He was despised”, but lacked the ferocity and volume to make the middle section really take flight. “Oh thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” was lively but emotionally underdeveloped. 

Baritone Benjamin Appl had some difficulties too. He has an ethereal and beautiful upper register, and sings delightful top Es and Ds, but the middle and lower registers sounded underpowered, with Appl eschewing, rather disappointingly, the bottom G and F sharp in “The people that walked in darkness”. Subsequent arias felt effortful and “The trumpet shall sound” dawdled, despite having the minor section cut. There was at least some fire to be found in his expressive interpolated top notes in “Why do the nations so furiously rage together”. His voice seemed uneasy, and though baritones often sing these arias, what was really needed was a bass on hand to make a racket.

The most engaging music-making of the evening came from the Philharmonia Chorus, over a hundred-strong, offering an unfailingly solid sound that rose to the acoustic challenges presented by the venue. (This reality was obviously not lost on Chorus Master, Gavin Carr, who when asked in the programme interview to describe the RAH in one word, aptly opted for “Big”). But with precise, clipped diction and lots of articulation the chorus brought bags of energy to the big numbers: “And with his stripes” had contrapuntal intensity, and “He trusted in God” bristled and burned. “Surely he hath borne our griefs” and “Since by man came death” had expressive range and striking emotional colouring. But overall this was a rather mechanical performance that felt like the work of weary musicians. The concert, I noted, was sponsored by BT; perhaps that might explain why one was left with the impression that this Messiah was being somewhat phoned in.