Performances of Handel’s most famous oratorio, The Messiah, pop up in England and in the USA like mushrooms – professional performances, amateur performances, Messiah sing-ins (you just have to bring your own score and try your for he shall purify-y-y-y-y-y…) – but they are becoming increasingly more popular in places usually not associated with choral oratorio traditions. If a Messiah performance should be called pan-Europan, the one held this evening at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées should be it – the soprano, the bass and the chorus were Austrian, the tenor was Finnish, the orchestra and the conductor were French – and Jennifer Larmore were the only native English speaker on stage.
I have an unhealthy curiosity for non-English Messiah recordings, which tend to file Handel oratorios and operas in the same case, bringing the theatrical aspects to the fore without any idea of the reverence sometimes found in performances supposed to be immerse in tradition (a tradition that is younger that those followed by Handel himself, it must be said). Although Jean-Cristophe Spinosi brought an unusual Vivaldian perfume to his Messiah, with some sensuous and passionate playing from his strings, dramatic accents and a vivid sense of narration, my first impression was that this was the poorman’s Les Musiciens du Louvre and Marc Minkowski (whose iconoclastic recording is always compelling in spite of the flaws): I don’t have the best set of ears around but I had the impression that pitch was too often treated in a cavalier manner especially by the upper strings, which could also develop a rasping sound. However, around the middle of part II, Spinosi’s palpable animation seemed to start to infect his musicians and the performance would eventually gain in stature and by Why do the nations, the experience could be counted as truly uplifting. At the end, the audience responded enthusiastically and, most unexpectedly, the hallelujah chorus was offered as an encore after an excited speech by the conductor about his love for it.
Soprano Cornelia Horak’s fleece-toned soprano floats beautifully in moments such as He shall feed his flock, but her lower register is not always 100% focused. Her coloratura is extremely accurate and she has an engaging personality and really means her text. Rarely has Rejoice greatly sounded so exhilarating as here, while she seemed almost transfigured in religious feeling in I know that my redeemer. Slimmer than last time I saw her, Jennifer Larmore similarly seemed eager to communicate and addressed the audience as if she was speaking to the congregation. It is a pity, though, that she was not really in good voice. The tone was often veiled, her low notes a bit recessed and the coloratura not truly impressive as usual. Although his singing was stylish, sensitive and accomplished, everytime Topi Lehtipuu opened his mouth, there came a different voice from him. When the tone was relaxed as in Behold and see, the results were warm and caressing, but most of the time the sound was a bit nasal and overbright in a Claes Ahnsjö-way. This is the first time I have ever heard Florian Bösch and all I can say that Ruthilde Bösch (Edita Gruberová’s teacher) has taught her grandson everything a singer should learn. If I say he stole the show, there is no exaggeration in that – his voice is extremely beautiful, flexible, firm in both top and low notes, perfectly focused throughout his range and, to make things better, he is not afraid to colour his text and tackles fast passagework with breathtaking precision. The Austrian contribution to the performance was crowned by the exquisite singing of the Arnold Schönberg Chor, the smooth sound of which is a joy to the ears. I was particularly impressed by the sweet-toned quality of their sopranos.