Richard Egarrs interpretation with the Academy of Ancient Music offered a different take on the annual tradition of Messiah performances. The orchestra numbered just 21, including Egarr himself on harpsichord. This forced the players to give their very best in the critical acoustics of the Barbican Hall, and allowed them a wide degree of experimentation with dynamics, tempi and phrasing. Sometimes this worked well as in the frenetic Why do the nations?. At other times it proved a little disconcerting on the ear as in the opening sinfonia, which almost ground to a halt before it got started.
There was no doubting the skill of the instrumentalists. The strings were perfectly attuned, and David Blackadder commanded his natural trumpet with great dignity and expression. The Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music also responded well to Egarrs energetic direction. Numbering just 21 singers, their enunciation was crystal clear, and they proved particularly adept at mastering the more complex contrapuntal numbers. Their closing Worthy is the lamb Amen was truly rousing.
Despite these achievements, the concert was badly let down by its soloists. Why more suitable Handel interpreters could not have been engaged is a mystery, but the quartet assembled on this occasion were just not up to the task. Tenor Ben Johnson grew into his part as the oratorio progressed, but his opening Comfort ye and Evry valley were pallid and took far too many liberties with the vocal lines. Mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson sang the part more effectively taken by an alto; bland in tone, and limited in range, she really was ill-equipped to deal with Handels music. Soprano Sarah Fox and bass Stephan Loges made better jobs of their respective parts. Loges The trumpet shall sound was sturdy and assured, but came too late in the day to match the superior efforts of chorus and orchestra.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk