Messiah, Polyphony, OAE, Layton, St John's Smith Square | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Messiah, Polyphony, OAE, Layton, St John's Smith Square
Stylish soloists, choir and orchestra run the gamut of Handel's amazing dramatic range
Messiahs of all kinds multiply at this time of year: the meek and the threadbare as well as the proud and polished. On the Sunday before Christmas, it was hard to choose between two potential archangels who could hardly fail given their respective pedigrees. It may have initially come down to a choice between single star soloists, soprano of the year Sophie Bevan at the Wigmore or flawless countertenor Iestyn Davies (pictured below by Marco Borggreve) at St John’s. As it turned out the entire team at Smith Square, crowning a week of top-quality choral concerts which had included Bach's Christmas Oratorio the previous evening, took up Handel’s dramatic challenge on every level.
Vital to its success was a choir which could well add “perfect” to its name, the polyphony in this case remaining expressive in every voice-part even when the spotlight has passed from one to another. The agility at conductor Stephen Layton’s faster but never rushed speeds in “For unto us”, “His yoke is easy” and “All we like sheep” could be taken for granted; more surprising given the English choral tradition's usual limits were the operatic stops pulled out in the passion sequence, the sudden blazes on words like “wonderful” and “surely”, the extreme dynamic contrasts in Handel’s wondrously original “Since by man came death”.
Layton oversaw the continuity in the dramatic contrasts between light and dark, many of them wrought by links between the choruses and the bass airs, where Matthew Brook produced long phrases which always made expressive sense. We marvelled at Handel’s introduction of the angel-thrumming skies, soprano Katherine Watson a light, high trumpet to introduce her bigger brothers from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the superlative David Blackadder and Phillip Bainbridge, ringing down from the gallery.
There were further complementary styles exchanged between Neal Davies’s poised, spacious “He was despised”, ornamented with impeccable taste, and risk-taking tenor James Gilchrist’s urgent sequence at what became the dark heart of Part Two. What a shame, though, to be deprived of what would have been their meeting in "O death, where is thy sting?"
Layton drew plenty of lively nuance and rhythmic spirit from the OAE, inscaping the orchestral drama from the opening Symphony onward, and not afraid to open up the grandeur at the peak of a dancing “Hallelujah”. And to cap the lyric choral and string beauties of the concluding Amen, it was a final treat to have organist Stephen Farr move from the platform to the grander instrument at the back of St John’s. Now there’s one thing, for a start, that the Wigmore couldn’t have matched.
- Following the Christmas Festival, St John's Smith Square presents a musical entertainment for all the family, Jack Frost's Christmas Adventure, running from 27 December to 6 January
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
more Classical music
Colourful British orchestral music, organ showstoppers and an avian-inspired piano premiere
A rousing standing ovation once again for Torke, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky
Shapeliness and soul-searching in Brahms, Schubert and Strauss
Blue skies from Respighi and Strauss, seasonal mystery from Brett Dean
Revamped concert hall and new concerto launch a delayed Philharmonic season
Remembrance-themed choral music, 20th-century cello concertos and an avant-garde vocal disc
Magisterial partnership triumphantly encompasses two Brahms concertos in one concert
Star percussionist leads tribute to maverick composer Steve Martland, but John Adams rules
A startling new comic opera, picturesque orchestral music and a terrifying Soviet symphony
One of music's iconoclastic glories breaks through cathedral murk in searing performance
Russian choir superb in unexpected masterpiece by a great piano composer
Delightful Sibelius programme compels despite a somewhat dogged soloist