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<em>Messiah</em>, Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican Hall
21 Dec 2017

Messiah, who?: The Academy of Ancient Music bring old and new voices together

Christmas isn’t Christmas without a Messiah. And, at the Barbican Hall, the Academy of Ancient Music reminded us why … while never letting us settle into complacency.

Messiah, Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: A Young Known Voice

Photo credit: AAM


Director Richard Egarr was a fizzing bundle of energy throughout the performance: swivelling swiftly from his wheeled piano-stool and leaping from his harpsichord to galvanise his 17-person chorus with swishing arm-sweeps, dynamically indicating rhythmic counterpoints and, sometimes extreme and always precisely nuanced, dynamic contrasts. The orchestra of the AAM were alert to every gesture. The overture eschewed the commonly heard double-dotting, Egarr also preferring a more legato bow stroke than we may be used to. The AAM’s playing was prevailingly fresh and spirited, though at times I felt that it was a little bottom-heavy, the organ dominating occasionally - perhaps the absence of oboes was a contributing factor?

I like my Messiahs to unfold like an opera, each number progressing segue into the next, the drama accruing compelling narrative and musical momentum. In this context, tenor Thomas Hobbs’ opening recitative and aria (‘Comfort Ye’ and ‘Every Valley’) felt a little too emphatic for my taste. But, not only did Egarr increasingly put his foot on the accelerator pedal often to thrilling effect - and it was fortunate that the Barbican audience quickly decided not to applaud each number - but Hobbs, too, came into his own in Part 2: ‘Thy rebuke’ really did evoke a heart broken, full of heaviness, while ‘Behold and see’ was assuaging, paradoxically urgent and soothing.

Countertenor Reginald Mobley took a little while to warm up. His voice has undoubted beauty and grace, but it rather lacked focus and weight in ‘But who may abide’, where the registral transitions felt cumbersome. But, the fluidity of ‘He shall feed his flock’ suited Mobley’s effortless lyricism perfectly. ‘He was despised’, sung absolutely off score, was one of the highpoints of the evening, and Mobley’s pointed vocal assertions were accompanied by a dry string timbre and bitter dotted rhythms in the energised central episode.

Christopher Purves gave us a powerfully vigorous ‘Why do the nations’, but one that was not consistently focused, and ‘The trumpet shall sound’, when pushed, strayed sharp - though trumpeter David Blackadder was compelling, combining mellifluousness and rhetoric with a truly beautiful sound. But, in Part 1, Purves’ ‘For behold, darkness shall cover the earth’ was richly foreboding, forming a pleasing complement to the later emotive frissons of ‘Behold, I tell you a mystery’.

Soprano Mary Bevan out-sang the chaps on this occasion, though! The soprano soloist in Messiah has to wait a long time for her first entry, but the recitative introducing us to the shepherds abiding in the fields was compelling and communicative. ‘Rejoice’ was relaxed and carefree, despite the technical demands, and conjured the drama of opera. In Part 2, ‘How beautiful’ spoke of simply, unsullied joy; ‘I know that my Redeemer’ was quite introspective but also persuasively assuring. Bevan’s soprano climbed high and sank low with ease and without disruption to timbre or tone. This was simply wonderful singing.

The real stars of the show, however, were the AAM chorus. When there are just seventeen singers there is nowhere to hide, but no safe haven was needed. If the combined voices couldn’t quite summon the majesty required in ‘Glory to God’, this was more than compensated for by their alacrity and agility in ‘And he shall purify’, in which waves of sound swelled and washed over us. The choral sequence at the start of Part 2 was wonderfully dramatic. We were provided with surtitles, but these were not necessary; soloists and chorus enunciated with clarity and bite, even when the lines danced lightly, as in ‘His Yolk is Easy’. ‘He trusted in God ’ seemed to trip along on tiptoe.

Egarr was able to indulge his whims in the choral numbers. In the first chorus, ‘And the Glory’, the phrases seemed occasionally foreshortened; ‘All We Like Sheep’ was characterised by idiosyncratic dynamic contrasts, and emphatic stress on particular words, such as ‘iniquity’. In the Hallelujah chorus Egarr didn’t ‘milk’ the fermata before the final cadence and seemed impatient to sweep forward with urgency. The homophonic mystery of ‘Since by Man’ tingled the spine, especially as the contrasting fast interludes raced ahead. The wall of resonant sound that pronounced the final ‘Amen’ belied the small forces.

Does Handel’s Messiah need to be made relevant for new, young audiences? I have to confess that, having spent my entire adult life endeavouring to share my artistic passions - musical, literary and visual - with learners young and old, and stubbornly resisting and denying the notion that art needs to be made relatable, my hackles tend to rise in the face of such terms. But, that’s an argument for another day …

This performance of Messiah was prefaced by Hannah Conway’s A Young Known Voice, a work collectively created after a series of workshops, Messiah Who?, in which young students aged 11-15 from various London schools had come together to explore their response to Handel’s work and create a new composition. The result was a palimpsest of Handel, negro spiritual, community anthem, declamatory rap and textual soundbite: a heady, and sometimes powerful and disconcerting mix. Text was whispered and proclaimed by the chorus, and members of the AAM chorus, and declaimed by young soloists who took bravely and assuredly took turns to come to the fore to make their voices heard.

There were startling juxtapositions: ‘Behold I tell you a mystery. It’s gone viral into all lands.’ ‘Death weighs upon our shoulder/ Until nothing is left. The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible.’ The unifying cry, ‘Hallelujah!’, was undercut by expressions of alienation, ‘We do not fit in the mould. We are seen as different. You’re not my child. Not my child.’

Conway - an experienced and undoubtedly skilful and empathetic leader of many such projects - said that she hoped the work would make us listen to Handel’s Messiah in a new way. Certainly, the young musicians who participated will undoubtedly remember the night they performed in the Barbican Hall - Mobley's presence and performance must have been an inspiration to some of the young participants - and who knows what artistic pathways such experiences may inspire them to follow.

One heckler, who objected to both Conway’s prefatory evangelism, as she urged us to ‘trust the younger generation’, and to the performance of A Young Known Voice itself, was - following some ‘Out, out!’ cries from nearby audience members - asked to leave by the Barbican Hall ushers. On my last visit to the Barbican Hall , just a few days before, the audience were dancing in the aisles; now they were being evicted from the stalls - Merry Christmas, indeed.

Occasionally, the text cut close to the bone, reminding us of the viciousness of rejection, estrangement and loneliness: ‘You are eight times more likely to be strip searched if you are black’; ‘shouts of Faggot and Queer only fed my fear.’ But, there was hope in the conclusion: ‘We are the future/ The newer generation/ We are the inspiration/ We will lead.’ One hopes that they are right.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Messiah

Academy of Ancient Music: Richard Egarr (director/harpsichord), Mary Bevan (soprano), Reginald Mobley (countertenor), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), Christopher Purves (baritone), Choir and Orchestra of AAM.

Messiah, Who? A Young Known Voice (Hannah Conway): La Retraite RC School, St Paul’s Way Trust School, Tri-Borough Music Hub, Westminster City School.

Barbican Hall, London; Thursday 20th December 2017.

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