In Rotterdam, Jonathan Cohen directed the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, the Netherlands Radio Choir and four polished soloists in an energetic performance of Handel’s Messiah. Performed without an audience and with a few of the players masked, this was broadcast live and will be available on demand for a year. In what seems to have become an annoying regular practice, the original performance interval is preserved intact in the replay, with the camera focusing on bits of different instruments left on the stage. Couldn't the interval be edited out for replay?

Members of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
© Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra

Although most people would probably not perceive Messiah as having a narrative, it does have a structural arc, what Jonathan Keates calls “Jennens’ scenic structure”.  Part Two is characterised by librettist Charles Jennens as “The accomplishment of redemption by the sacrifice of Christ, mankind’s rejection of God’s offer, and mankind’s utter defeat when trying to oppose the power of the Almighty”. It starts with the depiction of Christ as a “man of sorrows” in “He was despised”, and follows through on the theme of rejection via “All we like sheep”, “He trusted in God” and so on, until the whole work pivots to the theme of redemption with the the joyful aria “But thou didst not leave His soul in hell” with a carefully designed triumphal lead in to the Hallelujah Chorus. To leave out, as Cohen did, “Lift up your heads” and also “Unto the angels …. Let all the angels” seriously weakens the message and impact of this section. Also missing were “Then shall be brought to pass … O death where is thy sting” and “Thanks be to God”, which (unfortunately) are cut more often. Taking the interval between “All we like sheep” and “All they that see him” also doesn’t do much to support the Jennens’ trajectory.  

Emőke Baráth, Jonathan Cohen and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
© Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra

Apart from those strictures, the musical values were solid. The Rotterdam Philharmonic played on modern instruments (apart from the harpsichords), but Cohen infused enough Baroque style to make this palatable, with little vibrato and crisp articulation. The quite large choir was very disciplined with excellent English diction. The trumpets and timpani were especially good in the choruses which required them.

Emöke Baráth has a somewhat dark timbre for a soprano but nonetheless produced effortless pure high notes with considerable flexibility in the passage work and delivered “I know that my Redeemer liveth” with warmth and commitment. Andreas Scholl still displays refulgent golden tone especially in the upper part of his range, although I must confess to having a preference for a mezzo in “He was despised”. Andrew Staples appears to be the Messiah tenor de jour, as well he might, and Matthew Rose was equally at home in the bass part.

This performance was reviewed from the Rotterdam Philharmonic's video stream