The quest for a definitive Messiah (recorded or live) is possibly as elusive as the variety of interpretations and “editions” already available or yet to come of this perennial favourite masterwork. Christmas and Easter are never quite the same without at least one serving of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” “The Trumpet Shall Sound” or “For Unto Us a Child Is Born.”
The choice of instruments (“authentic” or modern), voices (various aspects of the male singing the solo alto lines), ornamentation (how much is too much for repeated sections?), forces: orchestra, chorus (from dozens to hundreds—possibly thousands for art-by-spectacle extravaganzas) and rhythm (much to the delight/chagrin of musicologists, many of whom seem determined to banish the solidity of a dotted-quarter-followed-by-eighth in favour of the far jerkier vogue for double dotting …) ensures that no two performances (even by the same forces on consecutive nights) will ever be the same.
How then, does one “know” a standout version from the rest? In a word: feeling. At any time (hopefully many) during the multi-layered three parts does the all-too-rare chill of artistic excellence ravish the listener and quench the thirsty soul?
In Stephen Layton’s new Hyperion production, (marvellously captured by recording engineer David Hinitt in the amenable confines of St. John’s, Smith Square last December), the most consistent delight comes from 31-member Polyphony—a chamber choir founded by Layton in 1986. Diction, pitch, melissmatic surety and blend all combine to produce a magnificent choral colour that, in and of itself, is worth adding these discs to any serious collection. “All we like sheep have gone astray” is wonderfully light and frothy; the multiple final s’es in “Let us break the bonds asunder” are as spectacular as the aural glow of the final measures of “Worthy is the lamb.”
Of course, the chorus on its own does not a Messiah make.
Layton seems determined to emphasize, quite rightly in the main, the drama of the oratorio that has all the features of an opera except the times and their circumstances around which to fully stage it. Accordingly, tempi are on the quick side and (to this writer who seeks more variety and weight) the dreaded double dots are employed at every opportunity (how different the opening “Sinfony” would feel and sound if the eighths were allowed a life). When actually demanded, there is fire in the belly of the strings that is infectious (“Surely He hath borne”). The overall preference to clip repeated slurs also reduces the opportunity for short/long contrast and occasionally threatens the otherwise splendid ensemble.
Layton’s few moments of self-indulgent affectation and unconvincing dynamics couldn’t have arrived at worse times. The oddly lightweight “Hallelujah Chorus” suffered an unwanted, severe diminuendo prior to “The Kingdom of this world” only to nearly grind to halt at “King of Kings,” combining to make the most famous moments the least-admired of the lot. With so much to admire on either side, one could only wish for a retake, letting Handel speak more for himself.
Happily, the soloists provided many memorable moments. Countertenor Iestyn Davies’ warm, organ-like tone (frequently, purposely matched by organist Stephen Farr’s delicately rendered continuo interventions) was especially effective in “He was despised and rejected of men”; more often than not leader Jacqueline Shave’s violin solos heralded the equally well-crafted colourings from soprano Julia Doyle, whose few blemishes revolved around the treacherously-wide falling intervals; tenor Allan Clayton has an ever-engaging sense of drama, backed up with a commanding tone that was particularly effective in “Thou shalt break them”; Andrew Foster-Williams demonstrated his persuasive range and sense of style (“The trumpet shall sound” was a joy at every turn, thanks also to Paul Archibald’s unerring contributions); once he masters the subtleties of singing more through than “at” the long one-syllable phrases could become an Oratorio master of note.
With something for nearly everyone, this Messiah is certainly worth an airing. JWR