Opera and Classical Reviews

The Sixteen/Christophers @ Barbican Hall, London

3 December 2008


Harry Christophers and The Sixteen celebrated their 150th performance of Messiah with a luminous account of Handels masterpiece.

It was a truly auspicious way to usher in the festive season and despite one gripe proved to be a definitive performance of this great work.

Messiah, probably more than any other work in the repertoire, has accumulated a wealth of bad performance practice that musical visionaries such as John Eliot Gardiner, Christopher Hogwood, Paul McCreesh and Harry Christophers have been reversing over the last twenty years or so as our understanding of Baroque performance practice has grown and developed. Gone are the massed choirs, Wagnerian-sized orchestras and Goodall-like tempi as smaller vocal ensembles and properly portioned Baroque orchestras are now the norm. The sound is crisper and lighter, textures have clarity and everything moves more briskly in Handel performances these days than it used to.

In many ways this was an exemplary performance of Messiah, and it goes without saying that as this was the 150th time The Sixteen had performed the work that the choral singing was the most consistently rewarding element of this performance. Having said that, and I hope Im not burnt at the stake for heresy, I would have preferred a fuller sound, and it has to be said that the Choir of the Enlightenment could certainly give them a run for their money, but on their own terms the singing they produced whether in their complete security in the contrapuntal choruses, scrupulous attention to phrasing and dynamics or cries of savagery in the Passion elements of the work was pretty well faultless.

Similarly the playing couldnt be faltered, with notable contributions from the continuo section, although orchestral honours went to Robert Farley for his simply stunning playing of the (valveless) trumpet in The trumpet shall sound which was spine-tingling in its brilliance. He was ably partnered by bass Christopher Purves who, along with the other soloists, showed a thorough understanding of the work and idiom.

Soprano Elizabeth Watts was a radiant presence, her limpid account of I know that my redeemer liveth was heart-stopping, whilst Catherine Wyn-Rogers was profoundly moving in a deeply eloquent rendition of He was despised. Tenor James Gilchrist doesnt have as much to sing as the others, but got the evening off to a rousing start with a vibrant Evry valley.

All in all this was a thoroughly satisfying and illuminating evening, apart from one thing; Christophers followed the ridiculous tradition of encouraging the audience to stand for the Hallelujah chorus, which for a musician of his credentials seemed all the more surprising. Its about time this silly practice was knocked on the head once and for all. Apart from that, it was a great evening and left one feeling that Christmas had, quite literally, come early!



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