Friday, 12 December 2014

Tenebrae/ECO/Short - Handel, Messiah, 10 December 2014

Cadogan Hall

Grace Davidson (soprano)
Martha McLorinan (mezzo-soprano)
David de Winter (tenor)
William Gaunt (bass)
English Chamber Orchestra
Nigel Short (conductor)

Time was, etc., etc. Now we account ourselves fortunate to have the opportunity to hear any Handel, even the Messiah, on modern instruments. But of course, things are not quite so simple as that. Not just Baroque, not just Classical, but even Romantic music and beyond have been increasingly surrendered to the strange hybrid of allegedly ‘period style’ – in reality, as Richard Taruskin has long argued, a thoroughly contemporary style – and a mixture of instruments from any combination of periods that appears to suit those performing. One London conductor has, for instance, recently, bizarrely used ‘period’ trumpets alongside modern horns (and strings) in Haydn, in performances whose principal purpose seems to have been to rush through the music as quickly as possible, with occasional distending of tempo apparently just ‘because he can’. The meaningless of post-modernism – and this is where Taruskin’s critique seems to me to have things quite the wrong way around – has been the victor, not modernism.

There was nothing so extreme here, thank goodness. But it was difficult not to suspect that the English Chamber Orchestra’s string playing was somewhat hampered by instructions at odds with their modern instruments. Modern, that is, save for the bizarre appearance of ‘period’ kettledrums, which certainly made an impact but an impact which seemed intended for another performance entirely. It was far from clear, either to me or to the violinist friend who attended with me, that what the violinists were doing with their right hands was compatible with the actions of their left hands. Lower strings seemed better off in that respect. Playing was generally reasonably cultivated, but surely would have been far more so, had the players been encouraged to rejoice in the capabilities of their instruments. It was notable that leader Stephanie Gonley’s violin solo in the penultimate ‘If God be for us’ – not the happiest of choices in the version of the work offered in performance – was far freer in style, greatly to its and our benefit.

Nigel Short’s tempi were sometimes a little on the fast side, but there was nothing unduly objectionable in that respect. For instance, if ‘Ev’ry valley shall be exalted’ was more energetic than we are used to, a convincing enough case was made for the decision. Although a small choir, twenty-strong, Tenebrae was perfectly capable of making a full sound, not least in ‘Surely He hath borne our griefs,’ which emerged furiously, and the (relatively) mighty conclusion to the final chorus. Alas, the ‘Hallelujah!’ was largely disrupted for me by a man a couple of rows behind, who insisted on jangling loose change in his pocket throughout its course, a strange updating of the custom of a segment of the Viennese public to jangle keys in order to disrupt Schoenberg’s concerts. The freshness of the choral voices had been immediately apparent in ‘And the glory of the Lord,’ and continued to give considerable pleasure and enlightenment.

Finest of the vocal soloists was an outstanding Martha McLorinan, described in the programme as an ‘alto’, although she sounded more of a mezzo. It was a pity that she was not given more to sing. She edged closer to Handel’s operas in the B sections of ‘But who may abide the day of his coming?’ and ‘He was despised and rejected,’ although never too much. There was contrast and continuity, then, and Charles Jennens’s text was ably communicated. Alas, the contrast between McLorinan and the strangely pop-like – I said we were in post-modernist territory! – delivery of the soprano, Grace Davidson, was especially glaring during their duet, ‘He shall feed His flock.’ Davidson made little of the words there and elsewhere. Although her light soprano might initially have sounded attractive enough, both it and her performance lacked any greater depth. Her coloratura was correct but strangely robotic. Tenor, David de Winter, opened promisingly. His first accompagnato, ‘Comfort ye, my people’ was splendidly imploring, gaining in strength as it progressed, the following aria nicely variegated. However, despite a gloriously lingering ‘Thy rebuke hath broken His heart,’ the aria, ‘Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron’ proved somewhat strained. There is a good oratorio voice there, though, without doubt. So is there in the case of bass, William Gaunt, whose attention to both words and music impressed throughout; moreover, he was not afraid to employ fuller tone on occasion.