A Messiah for Mr. Dawkins
Rose Theater, Lincoln Center
George Frideric Handel: Messiah
Lorna Anderson (Soprano), Clare Wilkinson (Mezzo-soprano), Andrew Tortise (Tenor), Mathew Best (Baritone)
English Voices, Timothy Brown (Artistic Director), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Laurence Cummings (Conductor)
Like the fear of snakes, spiders and politicians, the fear of “authentic” Baroque players goes far back in history. At least as far as the 1950’s, when reedy pipes, squeaking trumpets, growling trombones, and thin viols were put together with scratchy harpsichords.
Like the Camerata in the late 1600’s, playing what they thought was Greek drama, these early Music groups would congregate to simulate what was supposedly heard in the late 1700’s.
Those were Dark Ages of authenticity, and today dozens of consorts of various sizes have compensated for larger concert halls and more discriminating audiences. Certainly amongst the forefront is England’s “Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment”, about to celebrate its first quarter century.
They celebrated last night with a fastidious, clean-cut Messiah, played at the appropriate season, the advent of Advent. Pedants would not consider it “authentic”, since the strings did not seem to have anything archaic about them. The trumpet, used brilliantly by David Blackadder in “The Trumpet Shall Sound” looked quite Baroque, as did the harpsichord, from which conductor Laurence Cummings both played and energetically conducted.
There is no answer whether the resources were “Handelian”. At the first performances of Messiah, Handel employed only strings with that one trumpet. Later, he had a reedier orchestra with four oboes and four bassoons, horns and trumpets and a chorus of 20. In Victorian times, all of this was multiplied ten, or one-hundred-fold.
English Voices (the chorus) had 22 good voices (no boy sopranos), and since the orchestra had 24 strings, along with the winds and a booming timpani, this was no reconstruction, but a sensitive re-creation.
The orchestra plays so well together that they need no idiomatic tricks, like playing without vibrato or over-vibrato. They simply played good Handel. They may have rushed through the Pastorale, but that was simply an introduction for the vocal “shepherds abiding in the fields.” Otherwise, this was a good clean performance.
English Voice is but two years old, but they sung with great gusto, condemning us with “Why Do The Nations Rise Up?”, not making us feel too giddy with : “All We Like Sheep” and giving a rousing “Hallelujah” chorus.
Incidentally, only 13 people stood up downstairs, with almost no standees in the balconies. Obviously, Loyalists to the Crown are dying out in Manhattan.
The four soloists (Handel had five) varied. Mezzo Clare Wilkinson was so tender and delicate that her solos seemed fairly bloodless. (I confess there were times I wanted to simply plant her in a Dorset garden). On the other hand, Lorna Anderson was everybody’s dream of a Baroque soprano. She was clear as a bell, and her enunciation was perfect.
When she finished “I Know That My Redeemer Livith”, she could have turned Richard Dawkins into a believer.
Tenor Andrew Tortise had a youthful pleasing voice, and last-minute replacement Matthew Most, once a tenor with Scottish Opera, was a dynamic baritone.
No, this was not an overwhelming Messiah, nor need it have been. Charles Jennens, who compiled the texts for Handel, called it “a fine entertainment”, and that it shall forever be.