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Reviews

19 Dec 2019

Handel's Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall

For those of us who live in a metropolitan bubble, where performances of Handel's Messiah by small professional ensembles are common, it is easy to forget that for many people, Handel's masterpiece remains a large-scale choral work. My own experiences of Messiah include singing the work in a choir of 150 at the Royal Albert Hall, and the venue's tradition of performing the work annually dates back to the 19th century.

Handel’s Messiah, at the Royal Albert Hall

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Natalya Romaniw

Photo credit: Opera Omnia

 

Perhaps somewhat in the spirit of enquiry, we went along to this year's performance of Handel's Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday 18th December 2019. Christoph Altstaedt conducted the Philharmonia Chorus and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with soloists Natalya Romaniw, Marta Fontanals Simmons (replacing an ailing Katie Bray), Egan Llŷr Thomas and William Thomas.

The chorus numbered some 130, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra fielded only a moderate size team, with just two oboes and one bassoon, with continuo provided by a portative organ and harpsichord. The fine team of young soloists are perhaps best known for their operatic roles: Natalya Romaniw recently made her debut as Puccini's Tosca with Scottish Opera and will be appearing as Puccini's Madama Butterfly with English National Opera in 2020; Marta Fontanals Simmons sang the lead role of Hel in Gavin Higgins new opera, The Monstrous Child at the Royal Opera House; Egan Llŷr Thomas is currently a Harewood Artist at English National Opera; and despite still being on the opera course at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, William Thomas has already made his debut with Vienna State Opera.

Conductor Christoph Altstaedt took a modern, period-performance inspired view of the work. The days seem long gone when modern orchestras could completely ignore the historically informed approach, and nowadays performing Baroque music requires the delicate navigation through a tricky field. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played with admirable crispness and lightness, and I very much enjoyed their performance throughout the evening. Their two solo spots, the overture and the Pifa, were finely done with plenty to enjoy. Altstaedt's tempos were on the fast side, and he certainly took no prisoners, yet his performers, both soloists and choir, we well up to the task and throughout the evening we had some admirably fleet passage work.

In the early 1980s, I worked with a veteran choral conductor in Edinburgh who commented that the overall timing of Messiah could be gauged from the speed at which the choir could sing the semi-quaver passages. In the case of the wonderfully admirable Philharmonia Chorus that seemed to be at whatever speed Altstaedt wanted, and they sang with a nice lightness and unanimity too.

What let the performance down, for me, was the issue of balance, which is an area where many modern instrument performances go wrong. In the late 18th century when the large-scale Handel oratorio performances were born, it was common to multiply up, so that with a large body of strings you had a larger group of wind. Here we had just two oboes and a bassoon, and whilst I know that the wind parts are not essential, it seems redundant to have instruments playing that are inaudible in many of the large scale choral passages, we seriously needed to double or triple the wind numbers to provide balance.

The other area of balance was with the portative organ: it was adequate for continuo when just the orchestra was playing but simply did not have enough power to support a choir of 130 singers. The result was that, in many of the large scale choruses, the sound was basically that of singers and strings, with no extra colour from wind or organ. It seemed a shame that the Royal Albert Hall organ, playing the scaled-down registrations, could not have been used.

We heard a pretty standard version of Messiah, with no surprises but a few cuts. Part One was given complete, there were cuts at the end of Part Two and significant reductions in Part Three.

Nowadays, singing Puccini's heroines on the operatic stage and singing the soprano solos in Handel's Messiah is not that common, but in the earlier part of the 20th century singers would not have found the idea unusual. Natalya Romaniw sang with a lovely flexibility of line and attractive bright tone, and if the top of her range lacked something of the ease that a lighter soprano might have brought to the role, she more than compensated by her intelligent shaping of Handel's vocal lines. She brought a nice sense of drama to the Part One sequence and made 'Rejoice greatly' really sound as if she meant it! 'How beautiful are the feet' in Part Two was nicely shapely whilst 'I know that my Redeemer liveth', sung to quite a flowing tempo, was full of the confidence of belief.

Marta Fontanals Simmons, a last-minute replacement for Katie Bray who is ill, sang with lovely straight, well-modulated tone. Her Part One solos were full of lovely sculpted phrases and 'Refiner's Fire' had some impressive passage-work. In Part Two, 'He was despised', which was sung complete with its da capo, and had quite a fast tempo, but Fontanals Simmons gave it a sober performance, singing with lithe tone yet full of meaning.

Tenor Egan Llŷr Thomas started somewhat uneasily; in his trenchant performance of 'Every Valley' he seemed inclined to push the tone a little, perhaps worried about projection in the Royal Albert Hall, so we missed the sense of easy lyricism. But in the long tenor sequence in Part Two, he focused on the sheer drama of the music and impressed with expressiveness, approaching operatic vividness at some points.

Bass William Thomas impressed with his firm, dark tone and strong, flexible line in his solos in Part One, as well as some impressively fluid passage-work. 'Why do the nations?' in Part|Two was similarly exciting, taken at quite a fast tempo. And 'The trumpet shall sound' thrillingly combined resonant tone with a nicely fluid sense of line.

Conductor Christoph Altstaedt clearly relished having a large chorus which could give him both fluidity and speed (with impressively light and fast passage-work), but also weight and drama, not to mention the sound of 130 hushed voices. All this ensuring that the all-important choral contribution to the evening was both technically well crafted and highly satisfying.

Diction all round was excellent. Whilst I admit that I do know the words, it was gratifying to find how many of them both soloists and choir managed to get over.

Overall, this was a remarkably satisfying performance, demonstrating that large-scale accounts of Messiah work well in the right hands.

Robert Hugill

George Frideric Handel: Messiah

Natalya Romaniw (soprano), Marta Fontanals Simmons (mezzo-soprano), Egan Llŷr Thomas (tenor), William Thomas (bass), Philharmonia Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph Altstaedt (conductor).

Royal Albert Hall, London; 17th December 2019.

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