Signs of the times
George Frideric Handel: Messiah
Sally Matthews (soprano), Michael Chance (alto), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Roderick Williams (bass)
Harry Christophers (conductor)
The Sixteen, The Symphony of Harmony and Invention
Like three-for-two offers on "gifts" and Christmas puddings, performances of Messiah start earlier every year. December had barely begun when Harry Christophers and his choir and orchestra gave this one at the Barbican, although in earlier years they were more of a St John’s, Smith Square, sort of ensemble. But maybe Messiah performances have reached a dialectical synthesis: after the massed choirs of most of the twentieth century and the exquisite petite period ensembles of its last two decades (of which The Sixteen were one), which were occasionally rather smaller than Handel ever used, we are now in an age of historically informed big-house performances. Interestingly, the balance between God and Mammon is close to what it was for Handel’s original performances: the Barbican is a (subsidised) commercial operation, but Messiah is still perceived as a public, quasi-religious event, although the combination is less transgressive than once it seemed.
The soloists were an attractive lot. Sally Matthews, only five years out of college, the young veteran John Mark Ainsley, Roderick Williams, always reliable and increasingly recognisable as a great talent, and, in another sign of the times, grand-old-countertenor Michael Chance stepping in for an indisposed Patricia Bardon. For the past ten years or so, a countertenor would probably have been the first choice for this occasion, while a contraltoid mezzo might well have been regarded as an old-school choice, although Bardon probably has more (vocally) in common with the glamorous Mrs Cibber who first sang the alto part. In the even, Matthews looked and, regrettably in view of her youth, also sounded like a soprano grande dame of the post-war years; Chance was ragged at times, but as always expressive; Ainsley sang the tenor music like the Bach evangelist he is, making small dramas of his two main sections; and Williams, perhaps not quite a bass, was splendidly apocalyptic in his final sequence of arias about the last battle and the end of days.
The Sixteen (eighteen of them on the night) had superb intonation and ensemble, and, more important, a sustained sense of drama that was missing from the rather diverse soloists. Particularly striking was their Suffering Servant sequence at the start of Part 2, which powerfully combines pathos and the threat of violence.