Mary Bevan (soprano)
Sarah-Jane Lewis (contralto)
Joshua Ellicott (tenor)
George Mosley (bass)
Rodolfus Choir (chorus master: Ralph Allwood)
English Chamber Orchestra
Raymond Leppard (conductor)
The ghost of Christmas past? What a joy to hear Raymond Leppard conducting Handel very much in the Advent present. Times have changed, of course, and a musician who once stood at the very heart of Baroque performance, in this country and across the world, has long been considered at best politically incorrect by the merely fashionable. Where a contemporary such as Charles Mackerras embraced much of the period-performance wave, the treasure trove of Leppard’s musicianship from Monteverdi onwards has endured a frankly disgraceful press from many who should know better, rather more so indeed than that of Neville Marriner, another contemporary resistant to the dubious calls of ‘authenticity’. One eminent conductor recalled not so long ago his determination to bring period instruments to Glyndebourne for Mozart, and this at a time when the festival, he claimed, was still performing Monteverdi’s music as if it were Brahms. Anyone listening to the fine DVD of L’incoronazione di Poppea from 1984 could never seriously have thought, let alone said, such a thing, but sadly the days when Monteverdi, or indeed Handel, could be approached as music rather than as pseudo-archaeology are long past.
Many of Leppard’s greatest triumphs have been with the English Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble with which he has worked for more than fifty years – that is, when it was still the Goldsbrough Orchestra. It was doubly welcome then to have the ECO/Leppard partnership reunited for this performance of the Messiah. This was an accomplished performance, perhaps not the most exciting will ever hear, but with a splendidly collegiate sense. Indeed, with the young voices of the Rodolfus Choir, all ‘veterans’ aged between sixteen and twenty-five from the Eton Choral Courses, there was more than a hint of a superior Oxbridge performance, albeit far better rehearsed than would generally be the case with undergraduate musicians. For there could be no gainsaying the skill of the choral singing, well prepared by Ralph Allwood. There were occasions when, even in the relatively small surroundings of the Cadogan Hall, I might have preferred larger forces –strings were scaled 6-5-3-3-1 – but intimacy reaped its own rewards. Sir Thomas Beecham is a wicked treat, which perhaps spoils us for everything that comes after, but it would clearly be as wrong to elevate Beecham’s Messiah over all others as puritanically to denigrate it. And the occasional thin moment aside, the cultivation of the ECO strings proved a joy. Not that there was anything sentimentally ‘Romantic’ about the performance, far from it, as the harsh passion music of ‘He gave his back to the smiters’ reminded us; but passion had another side too, as Leppard soon demonstrated in the aptly deliberate tempo adopted for the tenor recitative, ‘Thy rebuke hath broken His heart,’ plangently delivered by Joshua Ellicott. Moreover, the siciliano lilt to the ‘Pastoral Symphony’ both pleased and, in its tenderness, intimated sadness foretold.
The emphasis lay upon letting Handel’s music speak for itself, rather than imposing ‘effects’, as currently favoured by a number of fashionable ‘specialists’, although Leppard’s own edition nevertheless threw up a number of surprises, for instance the duet version for mezzo and soprano of ‘He shall feed his flock,’ the use of solo voices as well as chorus in ‘But thanks be to God,’ and the inclusion of the tenor recitative, ‘Their sound is gone out into all lands’. There is, thank God, no ‘correct’ text of the Messiah; it is always interesting to observe which choices a conductor and/or editor might make. Ornamentation was employed throughout, at times quite ornately, yet without exhibitionism. A particularly good example would be ‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,’ when, aside from imaginative use of solo violin (leader, Stephanie Gonley), the reprise presented complemenornamentation from both soloists, Gonley and mezzo-soprano, Sarah-Jane Lewis.
Vocal soloists proved somewhat variable. Lewis had her moments but sometimes sounded a little soft of focus; I had the impression that this was a voice that will undergo considerable further development. Bass George Mosley, on the other hand, sometimes sounded dry, as if his voice had lost its bloom. In ‘The trumpet shall sound,’ the ‘B’ section sadly proved as startling a drop of inspiration as ever, but it was not helped by considerable drying of tone and intonational problems. That said, Mosley and the other musicians proved movingly sincere in the reprise of the initial material. Ellicott on occasion had a certain gravelly tone to his voice, but it soon disappeared; perhaps he was a little under the weather. At any rate, ‘Thou shalt break them,’ emerged in virile fashion, demonstrating that one does not have to be an heroic tenor in the mould of Jon Vickers (Beecham’s tenor) to impress here. Soprano Mary Bevan was the most consistently impressive of the soloists, beautiful of tone and long of breath. ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ was a true highlight of the performance. Diction was excellent from all.
We stood for the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus, which doubtless helped to send shivers down the spine. But even in a relatively restrained performance such as this, Handel’s genius would doubtless have accomplished that, likewise in the final ‘Amen’ chorus. Leppard did not at all play the showman, but his understated musicianship ensured that the extraordinary message embodied both in Handel’s score and in Charles Jennens’s selection from Scripture provoked wonder and thought. As we prepare to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, that is just as it should be.