The re-imagining of this Messiah lies more in addressing the performance restrictions caused by the Covid pandemic than in any fancy Konzept being brought to bear. So as not to try and amass the necessary forces in St George’s, Hanover Square – yes, Mr Handel’s very own place of worship – some of the music has been fed in electronically, particularly with respect to the choruses. And there is no audience; instead we occasionally see members of the technical crew in masks. The performance is offered as part of the London Handel Festival.

St George’s, Hanover Square
© Public domain

The version performed is the 1745/1750 standard one, with a relatively small orchestra. The strings are present in the hall along with one trumpeter, two harpsichords and a chamber organ, but the two oboes, bassoon, second trumpet and timpani are “recorded” (presumably before the actual event?). There are no less than fifteen choirs involved, including one “Sing at Home” chorus, which would seem to number over 150 voices. Different choirs perform different choruses, with the Sing at Home group beginning and finishing and also delivering the Hallelujah chorus. The others seem to range from humble local outfits to the resident St John’s choir to the highly professional likes of the NDR Chor. Some of the choirs appear as a series of boxes arrayed like a chess board on the screen, whose individuals were presumably in isolation from each other, and others appear in a concert venue, generally well spaced and usually masked, which may account for a certain amount of rather woolly diction.

One could imagine this as a series of recipes for disaster, but in fact the result is more than palatable. Each separate item is labelled on the screen as it begins, with the name of its soloist or choir as appropriate. In many respects it is more akin to watching a video than a live broadcast concert. There is an introduction by Festival Director Samir Savant, interviews with the soloists after Part 1, and a spoken conclusion by Savant. There were several request for donations, but in general these interventions were interesting and helpful.

Musically, the electronic instrumental material was aurally seamless, and the result was a lively rendition, with top players on historical instruments in fine form. Laurence Cummings, currently one of the very best of Handel conductors, worked his magic with the London Handel Orchestra members present and absent, well assisted by concert master Adrian Butterfield. The (apparently) lone trumpeter David Blackadder was remarkably secure on his natural trumpet.

The soloists have the distinction of all having been finalists in the LHF’s Handel Singing Competition, a nice endorsement of that event. Soprano Lucy Crowe is never one to hold back in performance and her remarkably emphatic rendition of “I know that my redeemer liveth” was compelling emotionally and vocally. Iestyn Davies could be considered the current prince of countertenors, and his lovely tone, accuracy and flexibility all worked well; “He was despised” was particularly heartfelt. The sweet voice of tenor Nathan Vale was also singularly apt for his arias, and bass Edward Grint produced a warm resonant “The trumpet shall sound”.

This performance was reviewed from the London Handel Festival live video stream