Christmas season for many of us means also Messiah season. Performances of Handel’s most famous oratorio pop up everywhere like mushrooms and one is always curious to hear something inspiring in this crowded field. My last experience with the work was quite unorthodox, when I had the opportunity to see the overactive Jean-Cristoph Spinosi lead his French musicians in this most typically English work.
This evening’s performance cannot be labeled typically English either – Hans-Cristoph Rademann, the RIAS-Kammerchor and the Akademie für alte Musik come indeed from Berlin, but they also happen to be Berlin’s most experienced team for Handel oratorios these days, as their Israel in Egypt has recently shown. That performance offered plenty of theatrical flair and I expected this evening something in the same level of animation. But that would not be the case.
Although there was nothing lethargic or dispirited about Rademann’s conducting, this evening’s performance sometimes suggested the benign efficiency of a Neville Marriner’s rather than the revelatory dramatic experience of a René Jacobs’s Messiah. When I was loosing hope of hearing something different, there came a truly rustic danceable Pifa. But that was basically it. The Akademie für alte Musik offered lean, elegant sounds throughout (and Ute Hartwich’s natural trompet solo in The trumpet shall sound was really sensational), but the RIAS-Kammerchor was a bit below its usually good standards. The excellent soprano section was unfortunately was not well-integrated with the remaining voices – altos could be solider as well and basses had one or two perilous moments with their melisme.
Among the soloists, Roderick Williams stands out. His compact, firm-toned bass is entirely fluent with divisions and his delivery of the text is outstanding. Tenor Maximilian Schmitt’s tenor is richer usual in this repertoire and he sings with sense of style, but he should work a bit more in his English. Tim Mead has an authoritative delivery of the text and also a bit more heft than many countertenors, but his extreme low notes could be a bit denser. I also believe that He was despised would have benefited from having been sung by a contralto. Finally, I have to believe that Sandrine Piau was not in very good voice. Her soprano was quite unfocused, her high notes seemed to demand some effort to float and she had trouble with low notes, often throwing them in somewhat hoarse chest voice. Naturally, she dazzled the audience with her fast fioriture, but unfortunately her diction could be clearer and her interpretation less superficial.