It wouldnt feel like Christmas without Messiah, and there have been several to choose from in London over the last couple of weeks. Listeners wanting the traditional choral treatment of Handels oratorio combined with a fresh take couldnt have done much better than Harry Christophersinterpretation with The Sixteen orchestra and choir.
The winter chill claimed another victim, with Carolyn Sampson being replaced by Sophie Bevan. Fresh from her candlelit, costumed appearance in the South Banks Messiah last week, Bevan put in a fine performance. Her bright, supple voice went from strength to strength, culminating in a particularly clear If God be for us towards the end of Part III. Her Part II account of the angelic annunciation to the shepherds was a moment of real drama and expectation. Less satisfying was Catherine Wyn-Rogers mezzo contribution. True, she was able hit the low notes with ease, but her overall delivery sounded stodgy. The beautiful air O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion felt like a matronly lecture rather than a joyous rallying call. At least she managed to convey the reflective compassion of He was despised in Part II.
James Gilchrist gave a strong account of the tenor part, with an initially hesitant Comfort ye giving way to a more flowing Evry valley. The lengthy recitative and aria passages in Part II were particularly well sung. Baritone Christopher Purves glimmered rather than shone. He underplayed the anger in Why do the nations but mustered more authority in The trumpet shall sound.
Any performance of Messiah rises or falls on the merits of its choir, and here The Sixteen were virtually faultless. Their hallmarks were clear diction, emotional warmth and strong characterisation. For unto us a child is born was a delight to hear, and Lift up your heads in Part II moved from darkness to light in blazing choral colour. None of this would have been possible without Harry Christophers insightful direction. He kept elicited some extraordinary playing from the orchestra, with every part heard clearly, from the continuo parts to the final resounding natural trumpets.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk