Nigel Jarrett reviews Handel’s Messiah, the first joint performance of the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera.
Of the many ways to groom a musical warhorse, a new combination of handlers is no guarantee of further merit. This concert featuring Handel’s Messiah marked the first time the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera had performed together. And on that count alone, the presence on the same platform of two of the country’s leading musical institutions was worthy of note. But whereas the orchestra had slimmed to near-baroque proportions, the chorus fielded a phalanx of more than 120 voices. Thus, before a note was sounded it looked as if the participants had turned up for different events. Even so, the first performance in Dublin 274 years ago was given with an orchestra of strings, trumpets and timpani alone (no oboes or bassoons) though the composer later made changes to the instrumentation; the original complement of singers numbered sixteen. Economy of means, then, but at least the balance was more or less right. Balance is all in modern performances, whether of the ‘authentic’ or the massed-ranks sort, for the original was different in other ways too, Handel having made no distinction between the soloists and the choir.
The resolution of this imbalance is always a challenge for the conductor. But not for the first time did Adrian Partington, conducting his own chorus with an orchestra demonstrating elegance and unanimity, make a populous choir often sound as though it were composed of half its actual numbers. Only once or twice, notably in the final Amen chorus, did the wind carry off caution to shrivel the orchestra into an almost inaudible background voice; but in the circumstances that could not have been avoided. Luckily for those who will listen to a BBC Radio 3 broadcast of this performance,* engineers will have put this right or lessened the disparity. It’s an unfortunate irony that such readjustments cannot always be achieved ‘live’, when the music’s heart beats strongest.
Partington’s view of this work, which he must have conducted many times, is measured and reverential yet also animated. Everywhere he emphasised the contrasts between the text’s Old Testament fire and New Testament restraint, and hammered home Handel’s apposite marrying of words, phrasing and music by insisting on accent and clarity of diction to elaborate it. Good examples were the sforzandos on the first syllable of ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Counsellor’ in For Unto Us A Child Is Born; the descending severity of the strings in the aria Thou Shalt Break Them echoed in the tenor soloist’s line (an almost onomatopoeic ‘shattering’); and the appreciation of what amounts to a Handelian joke in the chorus His Yoke Is Easy, His Burthen Is Light, in which the fugal imitations, pointedly cued by the conductor and delivered forcibly by each of the choir’s sections, reflect a choral exercise that’s far from effortless. This is evidently a choir whose abundant state doesn’t much inhibit an appreciation by its every member of what the rest is doing. One assumes there was a reason why it could not have been reduced to a number which might have pleased the period-performance people – and the rest of us, perhaps unexpectedly.
Ben Johnson, the soloist in that episode of breakage, sang in a voice of elevated purity elsewhere, getting the work off to a fine start with Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted and again matching the tone of the orchestra, itself muted in the accompanied recitative Thy Rebuke Hath Broken His Heart and its following arioso. Partington wasted no opportunity to suppress volume – and let it rise where necessary – while not stinting on briskness and colour, though he needed no help with mezzo Patricia Bardon or soprano Soraya Mafi, who found their own emotional levels, not everywhere convincingly. The mezzo’s O Thou Who Tellest Good Tidings To Zion moved things on but was not exactly brimming with exultation, and the soprano’s Rejoice Greatly was marked by tentative drama and carefully graded coloratura. Together in He Shall Feed His Flock, their combination was only marginally greater than the sum of its parts. But after Mafi’s exquisite I Know That My Redeemer Liveth it was possible to reconsider all the solo contributions in the context of equivalence. Not even bass James Platt’s heavily prophetic arias were projected from the mountain top and in the case of The Trumpet Shall Sound, it was overshadowed by the bright tones of the orchestra’s principal trumpet Dean Wright, stationed line abreast with the soloists. Given its brilliance, perhaps the trumpet should have sounded a tad farther away, as it did in partnership with Martin McHale’s from the organ ‘loft’ in the chorus Glory To God In The Highest.
Given the challenges of performing a work that still presents problems of manner and demeanour, the forces here were skilfully brought together. Messiah can survive almost anything done to it in the name of devotion. Even ubiquity cannot deny its status as a masterpiece.
* scheduled for next Monday, 19th December, 7.30pm, BBC Radio 3.
Header photo of BBC NCW with WNO Orchestra and soloists, courtesy BBC NOW.
St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 13 December 2016
BBC National Chorus of Wales, Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Mezzo: Patricia Bardon
Soprano: Soraya Mafi
Tenor: Ben Johnson
Bass: James Platt
Conductor: Adrian Partington
Nigel Jarrett is a former newspaperman. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize and the Templar Shorts award for short stories, and is represented in the Library of Wales’s anthology of 20th–and 21st-century short fiction. He’s also written a poetry collection and two volumes of stories. Among others, he writes for Acumen poetry magazine, Jazz Journal, and on music and other subjects for the Wales Arts Review. His pamphlet of stories, A Gloucester Trilogy, has just been published by Templar Press.