St John’s, Smith Square, 8 December 2012
This was announced as a chamber Messiah, but the dynamic impact was anything but. Drawing on nine young singers, all of whom are soloists in their own right, who were able to form the most cohesive and mellifluous of choral sounds, would have been impressive enough by itself. When one then realised that the performance was being sung from memory, with the narrative drive of a closely argued operatic text, the impact was overwhelming. Tempi never felt rushed but the seamless continuity from one piece to the next led to long stretches of development which can too easily be missed in performances which allow for shuffling and coughing between items, to say nothing of rearranging singers and instrumentalists.
Following eighteenth-century practise, the group have no conductor, and in this case not even their regular keyboard player, as David Wright was a last minute substitute at organ and harpsichord. This requires a far closer rapport than is normal even in chamber ensembles, and it was fascinating to watch the amount of eye contact between all on stage to ensure that they were not only together but making the subtle changes in dynamic and tempi which bring musical lines to life.
Singing some choruses a capella was not only justified but made musical sense. The hushed sensitivity of And with his Stripes flowing through All we like Sheep to close down to a reverential the Lord hath laid upon him was very moving.
Natural trumpets are always a problem even for accomplished soloists so it made sense to split the solo part across two performers. I recall many years ago being at the first performance of Basil Lam’s edition under Charles Mackerras where it took about six breaks before we could get to the end of The Trumpet shall sound so difficult was it for the trumpeter at the time.
It seems almost invidious to name individual singers under these circumstances but tenor Thomas Herford and counter-tenor Michal Czerniawski were particularly impressive and Zoe Brown was radiant in I know that my Redeemer liveth.
There was a well focussed essay in the programme drawing attention to the theology which lies behind Jennens’ word book, which was printed in full, together with the scene titles which make sense of the structure. Messiah is heard so frequently it can become just another winter event. When it is presented like this, a performance which strips away the religiosity to reveal the spiritual heart of the work, we can only be thankful that there are musicians around with the integrity to challenge us. Long may they do so. BH