Handel, Messiah: Trinity College Chapel, 3 December 2019
The Academy of Ancient Music, now apparently the world’s most listened-to period-instrument ensemble, gave what can only be described as an impeccable account of Handel’s Messiah in Trinity College Chapel on Tuesday evening, also live-streamed on Facebook to a worldwide audience.
The concert was preceded by a short interview conducted by BBC Radio 3 presenter, Ian Skelly, with Conductor, Artistic Director and founder of the Voces 8 ensemble, Barnaby Smith, and two members of that group.
Andrea Haines said that working with a comparatively small group of vocalists (as distinct from the massed choral forces so often associated with Messiah) accentuated the drama of the story Handel tells. Barnaby Smith also emphasised the organic nature of the work which makes it such a living entity, individual movements in performance seemingly different each time they’re sung.
Certainly, where Handel’s music is (and was) easily imitated, it’s his dramatic imagination which makes it live – its sonorities, textures, transitions, even (and perhaps especially) its pregnant gaps and silences in a work which proceeds with an inexorable pace and drive from Old Testament prophecies to the Book of Revelation.
The Academy of Ancient music, no more than 20 or so instrumentalists, provided a thrilling account of the score, each section revealing the inspirational nature of Messiah, reputedly written in 3 weeks of intense creativity, albeit that Handel, as was common practice at the time, tended to self-plagiarize here and there.
At the beating heart of AAM’s immaculate delivery is its wonderful strings section led by Bojan Ĉiĉić. Its contribution throughout, from the tremulous violins expressing fear (‘who shall stand when he appeareth’) to their shimmering expression of expectation and wonder in the Accompanied recitatives, ‘And lo, the angel of the Lord’ / ‘And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host’ was genuinely otherworldly.
Also indispensable and strikingly played were the contributions from the two valve-less trumpets in ‘The trumpet shall sound’ and final Chorus where again the musicianship of 6 violinists and 2 violists produced, uncannily, a sound as though of one instrument.
Messiah, though, is first and foremost a great choral work, and the Voces 8 and Apollo 5 ensembles, the Voces 8 Scholars and Guest Artists were uniformly excellent in what they did.
It seems unfair to single out individual names from the ranks of such distinguished contributors, but Apollo 5’s soprano, Penelope Appleyard’s Air, ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion’, was beautifully sung, as was the Duet between alto, Katie Jeffries-Harris and soprano, Eleonore Cockerham, ‘He shall feed his flock’.
Voces 8’s soprano Andrea Haines sang ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ in a plain and unadorned register. It was immensely moving and perfect for this Air which is so central to the oratorio’s message.
The Chorus gave a magnificent rendition of ‘He trusted in God’ and could be relied upon throughout to highlight those many passages where Handel’s music is perfectly matched to the libretto (‘His yoke is easy’ / ‘All we like sheep’), the articulation of each word delivered with the clarity of diction the Biblical texts demand.
In the pre-concert discussion Ian Skelly pointed to the essential humanity of Handel, the use of his talent to help others such as his funding of the Foundling Hospital, all of which was consonant with the Christmas message at the centre of this work which has become an annual seasonal event for the AAM.
As one listened to this outstanding performance one was reminded that perhaps what John Milton hoped for Paradise Lost could equally be applied to Messiah, that in this inspirational composition Handel has left something ‘so written to aftertimes as they should not willingly let it die’.