In the late 1950s, Sir Thomas Beecham commissioned Eugene Goossens to re-arrange Handel’s Messiah for large chorus and full symphony orchestra. In his introduction to the 1959 recording, Beecham stated, in justification for not using a small ensemble:
“To many ears the disparity between the size of the hall and the modest sound of the performance appears out of focus”
In the light of Thursday night’s performance of Bach’s B minor Mass by Les Arts Florissants under William Christie, Beecham’s solution is understandable. The Albert Hall’s acoustic is no friend to early-music groups, and while Les Arts Florissants turned in a generally excellent performance, much of the choral excitement was dampened by the listening conditions. The moments of trumpets and glory in the Cum Sancto Spiritu and the Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, for example, were clearly exciting for those of the audience in the trumpets’ line of fire, but for others sounded muffled (and a listen to the iPlayer recording confirms that, probably, those hearing the radio broadcast had the best experience of all).
Notwithstanding this, there were some fine choral moments. Christie opted to open the work with a series of quiet but polished movements, in which the dynamic rarely exceeded a mezzo-forte, and the ornamentation was studied and lavish: the lyrical slow fugue entry and the subsequent long crescendo in the opening Kyrie were beautifully measured. The fugue at the end of Gloria in excelsis was nicely mannered – the legato choral lines underscored with ‘pecking’ from the woodwind and strings. The louder moments of the Gloria, as mentioned above, were given a raw deal by the acoustic, although the timpani playing – which can enliven a more clinical sound with a virtuoso rough edge – was perhaps a little too polite.
The opening of Credo was taken at an agreeable lick (with some elegant pointing of the visibilium imitations), and Et incarnatus was magically pianissimo, followed by a suitably sinister hammering of the words of Crucifixus est. The basses were perfectly together for their exposed entry on Et iterum, and while the Confiteor was precisely controlled, it was perhaps a little pedestrian. Those who grew up with the work performed by larger ensembles in a more 19th-century idiom still regret that the Sanctus these days is rarely given a broad, slow and grand rendering, but so be it – and this performance was suitably fast and mannered with some well controlled swells, the choir getting the most out of the recurring suspensions. The final Dona nobis, alas, seemed a little less focused than the earlier fugues.
If the choral movements were sometimes swamped by the acoustic, the solo movements from the front of the stage shone brilliantly, and all four soloists deserve (along with their counterpart obbligato players – particularly the woodwind) special praise. Katherine Watson has a deliciously sweet voice with a hint of vibrato, which worked magnificently with the solo violin in Laudamus te and blended just as well with Reinoud Van Mechelen’s precise tenor in Domine Deus and Tim Mead’s mellow counter-tenor in Et in unum Dominum and Christe eleison (normally a duet for two sopranos, but Mead took this absolutely in his stride). Mead has a glorious voice – it manages to avoid the counter-tenor extremes of being too cutting or too blowsy – and his two solo arias, Quie sedes and Agnus Dei were a sheer delight. The litmus test of a good B-minor is the bass-and-horn combination in Quoniam, and André Morsch’s rich timbre combined with Anneke Scott’s effortless understanding of the need for a little scent of the hunt, gave it a resounding pass.