Wednesday, 18 December 2013


Barbican, London
17 December 2013

Countertenor Iestyn Davies in Handel's Eternal Source of Light Devine,. 
Not from the Messiah, but gives some sense of what Davies can do with decent accompaniment. From here.

A tedious performance wasting talented musicians.

This was the most anaemic Messiah I have encountered. That’s not necessarily because the forces were small, though in the Barbican it didn’t help.

It’s more that conductor Bernard Labadie adopted a deadening approach to tempi, and phrasing.

Handel, I feel, could have set the phone book in a pulse-quickening manner. In this work almost every aria, and every chorus, is exciting or memorable. Contemplating the refiner’s fire, or the wrongful sufferings of Christ, or the justice of the last judgement, brings out the best in the composer. Messiah also confirms that music can be dramatic even if there is no clear narrative, or characters.

On the plus side, the excellent diction from the soloists and chorus allowed us to recognise Jennens’ contribution in selecting some of the best verses from the King James’ Version of the Bible.

On the minus, I left wondering how Handel could have orchestrated the work so feebly. Perhaps this is the test of a decent performance. It should make us ignore the orchestration.

Slow tempi needn’t be a problem, but consistently smoothed-over phrasing certainly is. Every opportunity for contrast and vigour was missed, producing a single mush of beautiful, polite tones. The Hallelujah chorus lacked gusto, or even vulgarity, which would have been an acceptable substitute.

I suppose the many fans of countertenor Iestyn Davies would be happy, at least. His voice is beautiful, but that doesn’t in itself create drama, and in the event his arias only intensified the somnolescent effect.

The other singers also had ‘period instrument’ voices, ie no vibrato, which is a pity but it is not possible to blame them for the overall dreariness of the evening. Amazingly, the greatest aria in the work, I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, worthy of Bach, was a failure,  and surely that does reflect badly on soprano Lydia Teuscher.

Unwisely, this was a full-length performance, lasting around 3 hours (with short interval). An endurance test.

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