A first Messiah

Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment provided new listeners with a thoroughly modern Messiah

A first Messiah

Charged with taking a teenager to their first Handel Messiah this holidays, the choice was bewildering: should we go for size and splendour, authentic austerity, lofty atmosphere, star soloists or sing-a-long immersion?

I plumped for Polyphony – radiant young voices under the energetic guidance of Stephen Layton – with a clutch of alluring soloists and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment at St John’s Smith Square.

It’s a church Handel would have known, and is, like his own Messiah, a peculiarly Anglican compromise: how, in soberly rational Protestant England, do you sneak in the theatrical magic of catholic Italy? While Sir Thomas Archer’s 1728 interior, even seasonally decked, can’t shake off its prosaic plainness, Handel’s celestial church jumble – part English anthem, part German passion, part recycled Italian opera – achieves pure poetry.

We had in tenor Gwilym Bowen a seraphic herald of good tidings: looking with golden curls like a Botticelli angel, his exquisitely gentle ‘Comfort ye’   hung in the air like a beam of light. If ‘Every valley’ lacked communicative urgency, his melting tone provided a fine contrast with the robust contributions of seasoned bass Neal Davies. Iestyn Davies combined tonal beauty and expressive mastery in ‘But who may abide’, the orchestra crackling ablaze with his ‘refiner’s fire’.

Layton set the tone for his reading in an Overture of seething vitality, with piquant dissonance between organ and harpsichord tuning injecting an unsettling tension. We heard every vocal line, clean and lithe, in ‘He shall purify’, while  ‘tidings of Zion’ zipped along.  It’s no mean feat to make ‘For unto us a child is born’ sound fresh, but they succeeded, while Katherine Watson’s ‘Rejoice greatly,’ again, exuded a delighted innocence, buoyed by the OAE’s zestful strings. As the chorus launched into ‘His yoke is easy and His burthen is light’, the interval was upon us with no phone-fiddling or rolling of eyes in evidence from young listeners in a packed church.

The challenge of Messiah’s central section is to create a sense of crisis and desolation, and leave behind the pervasively pastoral atmosphere of the first part. In comparison with the blood-soaked texts and angular chromaticism of Bach’s Passions, Jennens’s allusive imagery set to warmly empathetic music can be almost too soothing. Perhaps Handel realised that the British cannot bear too much reality? Iestyn Davies, great Handelian that he is, found a piercing sorrow in ‘He was despised’, sculpting the word ‘shame’ to chilling effect, and creating a heart-stopping pianissimo end. But perhaps we needed more edge and anger in Bowen’s ‘laugh him to scorn’?

A well-focused ‘Hallelujah’ chorus punched above its weight, and what followed sustained attention with brilliant detail: the rapt hush ending ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ was broken by a bright cloud-burst of choral colour, while the keen trumpets of David Blackadder and Philip Bainbridge tastefully gilded the famous bass aria: it’s hardly Apocalypse Now, but Handel wasn’t out to frighten the horses. Leader Matthew Truscott made an ardently articulate partner to Watson in the poignant ‘If God be for us’. Perhaps it was appropriate in this small-scale yet vivid performance that the crucial silence before the final Amens made the most striking impact. That in-take of breath renders what follows all the more overwhelming, leaving one new listener shining-eyed.

Verdict? 'bare good'. One new convert.


Helen Wallace.


Polyphony perform Bach's St John Passion with the OAE at St John’s Smith Square on 25 March.



  • Article Type: | Blog |
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