Handel: Messiah (CD Review - Gramophone Magazine, 2009)

An engaging and likeable Messiah from Layton and Polyphony

Polyphony have given annual Christmas performances of Messiah in St John's, Smith Square, for 15 years. Many of these have been collaborations with the Academy of Ancient Music, but this Hyperion set is based on the most recent 2008 run of performances featuring the Britten Sinfonia. Perhaps some might find the use of modern instruments (rather than period ones) a major talking point. But it isn't as if hearing generally stylish 'traditional' performances of Messiah is rare, and two recent recordings have used modern instruments: John Rutter with the RPO (to decent, if not amazing, effect) and Sir Colin Davis (somewhat less satisfyingly). Moreover, one can easily point towards several 'historically informed' period-instrument recordings that contain all sorts of unhistorial anachronisms and aberrations, or that are fundamentally traditional tone. Layton observes in his brief note that Messiah can withstand diverse approaches, and fondly recalls impressionable experiences of hearing it as a boy in Sheffield Town Hall played by the Hallé Orchestra 'complete with a big pipe organ', and then a few years later being thrilled by the pioneering L'Oiseau-Lyre recording by Christopher Hogwood. Layton successfully fuses together these paradoxical approaches, for there is plenty of music-making here that has the lightness, textures and vocabulary of period style, but there is also the spiritual grandeur (and interventionist treatment of the score) of the great Northern choral society tradition.

There is a lot to like about this engaging performance. Allan Clayton's 'Comfort ye' conspicuously lacks its 'y', but in all other respects the four soloists are ideal. Julia Doyle is a charismatic Angel/narrator in the pastoral scene, and her embellished recapitulation of the line 'I know that my Redeemer liveth' is spine-tingling. Andrew Foster-Williams's singing is marvellous ('Why do the nations' is thrillingly dispatched, and he holds the listener in the palm of his hand as he confides 'Behold I tell you a mystery'). The well rounded tone and technical precision of Iestyn Davies's singing is easy to enjoy, but it is equally significant that his ornamentation in 'But who may abide' is masterful for its stylish vocabulary and expressive wisdom (Layton's dramatic explosion of the strings for 'the refiner's fire' is startling).

There are few stylistic solecisms that do not improve on Handel's practices. There is too much churchy organ in recitatives, and the use of solo violin in several arias is not preferable to unison fiddles, although the use of a solitary string bass as the cue for 'Since by man came death' is effective. Layton reverts to the old custom of shortening the upbeat in the motif of 'Behold the Lamb of God'; others may find this comfortable like an old pair of slippers. The first 20 bars of the 'Amen' are performed a cappella, which is lovely but ignores the efoort Handel expended in writing out a tasto solo organ accompaniment including detailed figured bass. Proceedings are occasionally a shade over-conducted, too sculpted and self-conscious, but Layton's affection for the oratorio is frequently discernible, not least in the technical and communicative qualities of Polyphony's exceptional singing of the choruses. In particular, the singers avoid forcing out everything loudly, which shrewdly prevents the splendour of Handel's music from peaking too often: 'And with his tripes' is surprisingly gentle; 'Surely he hath borne our griefs', in passages both loud and soft, possesses a rare religious conviction. Tempi are generally swift without feeling rushed, and the Britten Sinfonia's playing consistently neat and accomplished. This Messiah is calculated to keep certain questions open, and one doesn't have to agree with all of the proposed answers in order to find it enjoyable. It certainly has strong musical appeal and a probing nature. It is also worth mentioning Anthony Hicks's superb essay, his first for a Messiah recording since the seminal 1980 Hogwood set.


David Vickers

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