Having recently admired this performance on disc, released by Virgin Classics, I was interested to discover how it fared in the concert hall.
Very, very well, it turns out, even though the radiant Natalie Dessay had withdrawn at the last hurdle because of ill health.
The rendition of Handel’s Dixit Dominus, a work completed in 1707, proved an especial pleasure.
Emmanuelle Ham drew from the orchestra of Le Concert d’Astre a kaleidoscopic array of colours, the detail of the string ensemble outstanding. Similarly, Ham led the chorus authoritatively, moulding and balancing every contrapuntal line to near perfection, also striving for a tight and light balance between strings and voices. The more I hear it, the more I love this conductor’s approach to the Baroque: it’s crisp and brisk, full of brightness and colour, and it brims with personality. The continuo sparkles.
This first half performance glowed with light and moved jubilantly forward, its minor key outer sections stirring but not portentous. What deserves a mention? Tim Mead‘s aristocratic delivery of the aria Virgam virtutis for one, and also Amy Freston, Dessay’s replacement, who sang with pure, beautiful tone, effectively contrasting the richer, steelier sound of Salom Haller‘s soprano. The two combined stirringly in their melting, watery duet. Oh, and the chorus were miraculous, their varied and biting delivery melding the work’s parts together; it is pleasing to find, in a choir, such a homogenous bass sound. Highly memorable.
Perhaps the second half performance of Bach’s Magnificat did not hit quite the same heights, but it was a case of minor troubles distracting from the whole rather than any significant overall failing. The orchestra retained its vibrancy and virtuosity, the string band now bolstered with three excellently intonated trumpets, drums and woodwind. The obbligati were uniformly well played, each not solely complementing the human voice, but dueting with it.
Of the solo voices, ex-ROH Young Artist Robert Gleadow was outstanding, drawing, with his momentous bass, a great amount from the brief aria Quia fecit. Paul Agnew (also a replacement) was, however, sadly under projected throughout and, though he phrased thoughtfully, his tenor could sound grainy. This was especially noticeable in the duet Et misericordia, where Agnew struggled to match Mead’s even, lengthily breathed alto lines. But it was Mead himself who troubled in the aria Esurientes, seeming a tad inexpressive, lacking the personality of the flute accompaniment.
These were, however, but minor problems in a performance that drew one helplessly into both Ham’s vivacious personality and into the music’s simple genius.