We fortunate Londoners can always rely on two Messiahs in December — one early, usually in a less than atmospheric venue, then a second near to Christmas Eve at St John’s Smith Square. This time, the RFH seemed more festive than usual — or maybe it was just the infectious enthusiasm of the OAE and its supporters. The ‘Choir of the Enlightenment’ certainly went for the celebratory feel, with plenty of Shaw’s “unembarrassed sincerity of dramatic expression” on offer.
The evening’s vocal quality was varied: sometimes reliable, sometimes quirky, sometimes dangerous — but that’s Handel as he should be sung. John Mark Ainsley has no rivals for the title of “best bleedin’ Messiah in the country” (Heddle Nash) and he gave his characteristic ‘Comfort Ye / Ev’ry Valley’ — which is to say, he made the opening phrases sound consoling (as opposed to sounding as though he were asking for comfort, like every other tenor) and although he skipped merrily through the decorations in the aria, he did it without showing off. If the fireworks in ‘Thou shalt break them’ were not quite as pyrotechnic as before, this was compensated for with an increased richness of tone.
I wish Julia Doyle did not skip about quite so much, and that she would take to heart Shakespeare’s advice as given by Hamlet to the players, not to “saw the air” with the hand. Her voice is bright and silvery, she is very responsive to the text and she clearly loves this music, so she can afford to stand completely still for her arias. ‘Rejoice greatly’ was a dash rather than a minuet, so perhaps this was an invitation to over-interpret.
There was also some effortfulness in Tim Mead’s performance; it was great to see and hear him untrammelled by eviscerated crocodiles (ENO) and his tone is as sweet as you could wish for, but he tends to overdo things at the expense of being direct. ‘He was despised’ trod delicately on the boundary between sentimentality and empathy. Matthew Brook’s bass is not characteristically Handelian, that is to say it is lyrical rather than thundering, but that pays dividends in terms of subtlety, especially in recitative. Despite a momentary loss of contact in ‘The Trumpet shall Sound,’ both bass and trumpet (David Blackadder) gave a towering account of this wonderful music.
Robert Howarth directed from the harpsichord with great enthusiasm, drawing supportive and engaging playing from the orchestra — but then, this is the OAE, a band which never gives anything less than that. Their New Year Creation on January 9th (also at the RFH) is eagerly awaited.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk