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Posts Tagged ‘Handel’s Messiah’

Performances of Handel’s most famous oratorio in December are a tradition of English-speaking countries gradually taking over continental Europe and beyond. This is my second Messiah in France, one particularly pan-European, if one has in mind that chorus, orchestra and conductor are imports from Barcelona and that countertenor and bass were born this side of the English Channel, i.e. La Manche.

Before I speak of the concert, some words must be said about the venue. Its extremely resonant acoustics make it difficult to assess the music-making this evening. I would even say that, without intervention to tame the echo-chamber-like impression, it shouldn’t be used for concerts at all. As it is, although there is a nice glow to the chorus and the orchestra, divisions sound blurred and it can be quite testing for singers.

Jordi Savall is a pioneer in historically informed performances whose interest in Bach and Monteverdi are widely acknowledged, but whose curiosity for Handel has been steadily increasing. Mr. Savall is a self-effacing conductor whose respect for the composers involve the eschewal of effects and the search for naturalness. His performance this evening was so honest that it could be called prudent. He clearly sees the work of a non-operatic point of view (which could be called the default these days) and seems to be comfortable with the atmosphere of the spiritual concert   that took place in Dublin under the composer’s supervision. But Handel was an opera composwer above anything else, and numbers like Why do the nations rage so furiously together?, a more vivid approach would have been welcome.

In any case, the crowning glories of this performance were the Concert des Nations’s warm strings and polished trumpets and the exquisite choral singing offered by the Capella Reial de Catalunya, homogeneous yet colourful and expressive throughout. Due to the hall’s resonance, I wouldn’t be able to comment on their pronunciation, though.

I am not truly convinced that countertenors are the best option for He was despised, but Damien Guillon (whose beard makes him looks like Marcel Proust) sounded small-scaled and monochromatic in these unfavorable acoustics. Tenor Nicholas Mulroy too was hard to hear, especially low notes. On the other hand, Matthias Winckler poured voluminous rich sounds, flexible enough for the coloratura and ductile enough for softer dynamic effects. I leave again the best for last, the bell-toned Rachel Redmond sang the soprano part with such spontaneous musicality that one almost had the impression that Handel wrote it for her. She is the kind of soprano whose low register is so appealing that one never feels sorry when her cadenze go downwards rather than upwards. Rejoice, greatly was the only number when I felt that the conductor was rushing things, but Ms. Redmond produced crystalline fioriture without sounding frantic or desperate. She was clearly the audience’s favorite, especially after singing a truly heartfelt I know that my redeemer liveth.

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A Christmas tree on stage was the first sight I could get while looking for my seat in the Suntory Hall. Today is alright Christmas Eve, but other than the fact that Christmas and Handel’s Messiah share the same theme, should there be a relation (other than the fact that theatres like to present it at this time of the year)? Let us not forget that Handel himself did not devise it as a Christmas entertainment and that the Dublin première actually happened in April. Does this sound like idle talk? Maybe – but I wonder if the atmosphere devised by Handel has anything to do with the benign feel of “season spirit”?  He was despised, Why do the nations rage so furiously together have anything to do with eggnog and mistletoe? Even if you think of the sunniest moments in this oratorio, such as Rejoice greatly or Ev’ry valley,  do they sound comfy to your ears? Not to mine – and I often think that this gemütlich Christmas atmosphere rather robs than adds something to what Handel wanted to express in this piece.

This afternoon’s performance, for instance – as many that I have seen in this season – had all the sharp corners rounded off. Even when tempi were brisk, the accents lacked incisiveness, the theatrical gestures hinted at at most, the orchestra lacking body and rather edgy in the most exciting moments. Handel was an opera composer nurtured in the Italian tradition and acquainted with French style – the ascetic Lutheran atmosphere that adds a sense of spiritual concentration in early Bach cantatas unfortunately does not make this music blossom in all its intense and exuberant chiaroscuro. Some performances take off, some do not – the initial spark was not there and one could feel conviction decreasing as the evening approached.

If I could single out two successful elements today, those would be: the chorus and the bass soloist. The Bach Collegium Japan’s chorus sings with exemplary fluency and clarity. The lack of animation eventually caught them, but they resisted as much as they could. I would also say that I have heard far less proficient English pronunciation in Germany and France. As for Roderick Williams, whom I saw in the part a while ago in Berlin, he alone had the sense of communicating to an imaginary congregation and unfailing enthusiasm.  Moreover, his divisions are admirably fluent and he now colours the text even more efficiently. Since we had the 1743 version, he sang But who may abide with praiseworthy flexibility. Tenor Makoto Sakurada too is very adept in fioriture and his voice has more presence than most Handel tenors’. That said, he must really find a way to find some joy in his singing. As it is, he seems to be having very little fun and that tension builds up into his tight high register – the high a’s in Thou shalt break them were rather lunged at than truly sung. Countertenor Clint van der Lind maybe was not in his best voice – he seemed ill at ease around the break in O thou that tellest and, even if he did warm up for the rest of the performance, his voice never gave the illusion of naturalness that great countertenors never fail to produce. Johanette Zommer’s soprano often lacked focus and sounded uncomfortable either in high or low notes. She seemed more aware of the text than both tenor and alto, but true ease was never there. Finally, I really do not think that it was a good idea for one tenor and one soprano from the chorus to borrow some arias and recitatives from the soloists – good as they were, the soloists themselves were all in all still more interesting than they ultimately proved to be.

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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.

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