It’s only recently that the Messiah has become such a Christmas staple. Handel wrote the work for Eastertide and the narrative, such as it is, moves on from Christ’s birth to focus on the theme of His crucifixion and resurrection. So amidst a seasonal flurry of John and Matthew Passions, Laurence Cummings‘ interpretation of this famous oratorio was a most welcome prelude to the Easter weekend.
For purists, the cavernous Royal Festival Hall presents a less than ideal venue for this work (although just 25 years after Handel’s death, the Messiah was presented in Westminster Abbey by a choir of 400) but Cummings commanded a performance of warmth, vivacity and penetrating beauty, which is what one would indeed hope for from the Musical Director of the London Handel Festival.
Watching him directing the combined forces of the English Voices choir and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from the harpsichord was like watching a magician at work; sharing the continuo role with Julian Perkins on the chamber organ, Cummings would leap up from the keyboard to conduct with great energy and animation, dancing on tip-toe at times. The OAE performed at the high level one has come to expect from this most distinguished of period ensembles, and the lesser-known English Voices choir impressed with thrilling intensity and razor-sharp articulation.
Each of the four soloists made a fine contribution, but it would be fair to report that the men stood out above the women. Clare Wilkinson may have been technically secure but her lightweight mezzo lacked a necessary power and depth in certain sections. This was perhaps most apparent in the ‘He was despised and rejected of men’ aria, where she was poignant and affecting in the first and third parts, but drowned in the ‘He gave His back to the smiters’ interlude by the tense and jagged strings. Likewise, Lorna Anderson was sure-footed but her soprano lacked purity and at times veered dangerously towards a warble. The handsome young tenor Andrew Tortise proved effective and engaging, and Matthew Best, replacing Christopher Purves at short notice, sang the sporadic bass role well.
The concert’s unquestionable highlight came with Best’s ‘duet’ with the natural trumpeter, David Blackadder (who I had previously admired at Prom 52 last year) for ‘The trumpet shall sound’ We were watching a master: Blackadder’s trumpet line simply soared and he displayed an immaculate control of tone and volume. The whole evening’s performance demonstrated, amongst many things, that this piece is wholly undeserving of the warhorse epithet. It might be regarded as a “national treasure”, and some members of the audience still insisted on standing for the Hallelujah Chorus, but Cummings’ exciting retelling was anything but quaint or fusty.