Wednesday, 15 April 2009


14/04/09, Westminster Abbey.

2hrs 50mins. The 250th anniversary of Handel's death; live broadcast on Radio 3; the Abbey choir; top-notch soloists (Paul Agnew, tenor; Ailish Tynan, soprano; Sarah Connolly, mezzo; Jonathan Lemalu, bass-baritone); a band, St James's Baroque, we'd never heard of but who did a decent job under the Abbey's choirmaster, James O'Donnell; lots of atmosphere. Yet rather disappointing. "Not the best Messiah I've heard," G said, and he's heard a good few.

One problem was the acoustic, which swallowed the words and much of the detail and decoration. We were sitting about two-thirds of the way back in the Nave, but without a stage or a rake we could see little beyond the heads of the soloists and the back row of the choir, on a dais behind the band and in front of the screen. I could hear well enough, but D, who is much shorter, could neither hear nor see properly. God knows what it must have been like with those acoustics in the days of Handel celebrations in the Abbey with massed bands and choirs: nothing but a wash of sound, one imagines, though I seem to recall Haydn heard one of these extravaganzas and was sufficiently impressed to compose The Creation in imitation. (Half the audience were behind the screen and beyond the choir stalls; after we'd applauded the performers they all went down the other end and you heard them being applauded again. Heaven knows what it sounded like down that end, though.)

There was also a problem with the choir: 21 trebles, plus five each of tenors, basses and male altos. They lacked attack at times: "Their sound has gone out..." actually went out rather feebly, though the Hallelujah went well, if rather dominated by timps and trumpets and some other brass I couldn't see, hidden away behind the pillars. The choir make a lovely sound when soaring in unison, but the combination of forces and cathedral echo did them few favours in some of Handel's more intricate part-writing.

I jotted a few notes in the programme as we went along (having words helps enormously in pinpointing the musicial moments that make an impact). The tenor aria "Comfort ye, my people" was exquisite, the long, quiet "comfort ye" immensely long drawn out but beautiful. "For he is like a refiner's fire" was sung by Connolly, not the bass Lemalu, though he sang the recitative: I think this is quite often done, but it was regrettable because she didn't seem to be in great voice, and his was the only voice that cut through the echo, so I'd have loved to hear him sing it. On "be not afraid" in "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion" the choir were electric.

"The people that walked in darkness" was top notch: authoritative and stirring. G said: "You won't hear it better sung!" though at the end he also said he thought Lemalu had taken time to warm up, so maybe one might hear it better sung. And when he sang "have seen a great light" one of the lights illuminating the screen behind the choir actually went out; it was dodgy throughout the first half, though they got it fixed for the second.

And the screen featured in the chorus "For unto us a child is born", when two trumpeters joined in from the top of the screen.

The soprano aria "Rejoice greatly" was taken too fast: even so, it sent shivers down my spine. But the energy flagged towards the end of the first half, when the soprano and the mezzo share the honours with some melodic but unexciting writing. I saw one of the little choir boys yawn vastly at one point.

Sarah Connolly finally came good in part two, in "He was despised", with some wonderful decoration in the da capo repeat. But unless I mistake they cut the da capo in the bass aria "Why do the nations?", which is one of the highlights.

The soprano had to cope with not one but two wailing sirens outside the Abbey in the final section, alas, in "I know that my redeemer liveth" and "If God be for us", but it didn't seem to put her off her stride. Lemalu gave "The trumpet shall sound" lots of oomph, which was good, but the tenor-mezzo duet, "O death, where is thy sting?" was, it says here, "odd". I think I meant their voices weren't quite as well matched as they should have been.

Two contrasting reviews here: I agree in general with the Guardian, though not with his detailed assessments of the singers. But maybe it sounded different where he was sitting. Certainly, it was one of those occasions when you felt the radio version would have been preferable.

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