Handel’s Messiah for the nostalgic listener at the Royal Albert Hall.
“The English”, opined Thomas Beecham, “may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes.” This is most true at Christmas, when many reach for seasonal music in a ritualistic way, wanting comforting childhood nostalgia, rather than the more cerebral engagement of historical ‘authenticity’. Handel’s Messiah, for some, is Christmas, and the versions popular before historically informed performance provide just the right degree of listenability for them. There’s no need for snobbery around this: as Wednesday’s conductor Sian Edwards mentioned in an interview with musicOMH, there have been so many different versions of Messiah, (even in Handel’s lifetime, performances for large forces occurred) choosing a single authoritative way of performing the work is difficult.
Wednesday’s matinée performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonia Chorus was everything that an audience out for nostalgia could have hoped for: a slickly professional rendering by well-seasoned forces, with sensible cuts (mostly of lengthy da capo repeats) to ensure everyone’s favourite moments were there, without the performance being overlong. Some of the quirky tricks with extremes of tempo and timbre which early music specialists love to inject, were missing, but this was the Albert Hall, a space where, as Beecham himself noted about deploying small Baroque ensembles: “…the modest sound of the performance appears out of focus”.
Notwithstanding all of this, Edwards – as promised in the interview – still contrived to inject some elements of historical interest and timbral variety into the account. ‘Rejoice greatly’ was given in its earlier, more fluid, 12/8 version (rather than the usual, jerkier, ‘inégale’ 4/4 rendering). Edwards’ intention to provide dynamic contrast by varying instrumental forces generally worked well in the orchestra, particularly in the solo movements. The addition of the main organ for choruses was inspired (and not historically inaccurate), even if the final blast on ‘Amen’ was a tad blatant. The choral shadings, though, were less effective: acute dynamic contrast occurred really only (as Handel requires) in ‘Since by man…’. It would have been nice, for example to hear ‘Wonderful, Counsellor’ as an exciting revelation, rather than as the marginally louder end of a crescendo. That said, there was some excellent blend throughout, and the occasional marcato passage (‘…delight in him…’) provided piquancy.
“Handel’s Messiah, for some, is Christmas…”
Of the soloists, the soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha stood out. Her sweet, bell-like tone has gained her plaudits for performances of Mozart, and here, in slightly earlier material, it suited perfectly. The test is always that opening recitative: ‘And there were shepherds…’, and she passed with flying colours, going on to give beautifully nuanced accounts of ‘Rejoice greatly’ and ‘How beautiful are the feet’. Claire Barnett-Jones, another Cardiff Singer of the World star, took the mezzo solos, although, really, her voice should be described as ‘contralto’, as it is rich and textured, and capable of delivering some powerful notes in the chest register. Those who prefer a countertenor for these movements would, perhaps, have been disappointed, but her fruity delivery of ‘He was despised’ was perfectly in keeping with the overall feel of the performance.
Often, Messiah tenors in these types of performances seem to ‘head for the Helden’, which certainly provides excitement and star quality, but Thomas Elwin’s darker toned voice has a subtle drama of its own, that brought to ‘Thou shalt break them’ an intriguingly new sense of quiet menace rather than declamatory venom. Simon Shibambu, like Claire Barnett-Jones has a voice suited to Messiahs of this kind; it’s spread, and full of complex harmonics, and though its gruff solidity worked for ‘The people that walked in darkness’, it led to a touch of unfocused pitch in ‘Why do the nations?’.