Happy Birthday Stephen Layton! 53 years young on the day of this performance, but it felt like we were the ones getting all the presents, as Layton and his choir Polyphony revisited their annual Messiah at St John’s Smith Square.

Stephen Layton © Keith Saunders
Stephen Layton
© Keith Saunders

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment purred through a spry performance of this festive stalwart. Benevolent cuts meant a 19:30 start and out by 10pm, aided by a low-carb approach to performance: numbers would segue directly from one to the next with nary a pause, and soloists would take and leave the stage as and when required; nothing makes drags like watching a baritone twiddle their thumbs during “He was despised”.

Consequently the audience’s focus was pulled taut throughout. It might be a work whose narrative is more loosely bound than other of Handel’s oratorios, but simply turning having our soloists enter and exit the stage gave it unusual narrative force, in a work too often the classical music equivalent of office party karaoke.

There was no slackness from a starry roster of soloists. James Gilchrist is a great narrator in this music, particularly in the sequence beginning with “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart”, showing off the Evangelist credentials of this experienced performer of Bach. Neal Davies elegantly shaped his lines with the band in “The people that walked in darkness”; his coloratura was razor-sharp in a blazing “Why do the nations…” A surprise, whispered pianissimo on “mystery” in Part 3 was spellbinding.

Soprano Anna Dennis was frequently ravishing, with a rich sound and musical intelligence that spotlighted moments of extraordinary tenderness and vulnerability, not least in the final phrases of ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’. Alto Helen Charleston lost a bit of colour in her lower register, at points, and her sound sometimes wanted for colour, though her refiner’s fire had superbly executed passagework and bags of proper opera seria drama.

Layton’s approach found new spots of light and dark – for instance in the piano repeat of the overture’s opening – but his conducting was collected and unobtrusive, shaping Polyphony’s phrasing where needed but often trusting the OAE and chorus to get on with it, with few melodramatic interventions. Sometimes his unfussy tempi spilled over into briskness, and got the better of the music: “But who may abide…” sounded rather disinterested, and a frisky Pastoral Symphony suggested shepherds who frolicked rather than abided in the fields. Layton eschewed leading from the harpsichord, which focused his attention fruitfully on the ensemble and text.

The OAE’s strings clearly revelled in the venue’s diaphanous acoustic, to myriad effect: a shadowy pianissimo opened the bass recitative “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth”; Champagne-froth passagework fizzed through a brisk “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion”; their Baroque bows brushed breathlessly through the arpeggios in “And suddenly there was an angel”. Matthew Truscott’s solo violin shone with lyrical effulgence in “But thou didst not leave his soul in hell” and “If God is for us”. The trumpet solos in the Hallelujah chorus, and the famous part three bass aria, were unapologetically luxurious and burnished.

The final “Amen” gave us cello-like sonorities from Polyphony’s men, and, giving the lie to any expectations about the dryness or lightness of sound from these kinds of instruments or forces, Layton imbued it with an almost Mahlerian spiritual grandeur.

Polyphony triumphed in their precise delivery of the text, which manages to make the whole thing unfold as a series of extraordinarily direct liturgical and emotional thoughts. The climax of “All we like sheep” – the marvellous series of suspensions on “…and the Lord hath laid on his the iniquity of us all” – was a keening benediction, with every word handled as if to weigh up its power and implication.

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