Friday, 11 December 2015

OSJ/Lubbock - Handel: Messiah, 10 December 2015

St John’s, Smith Square

Nardus Williams (soprano)
Eleanor Edmonds (mezzo-soprano)
Chris Turner (tenor)
Morgan Pearse (bass)

OSJ Voices (chorus master: Jeremy Jackman)
Orchestra of St John’s
John Lubbock (conductor)

I have heard a good deal of moaning about Messiah performances this year: more, I have to say, from performers than from audiences. Perhaps it does become a little tedious for some; there are certainly alternatives (or why not supplementary works?) well worth exploring. Yet, for whatever this is worth, there generally seems to be an audience for a performance, of whatever ilk. Moreover, whilst I should love the opportunity to hear other Handel oratorios in non-‘period’ performances, they are few and far between. For those of us who admire Handel and prefer his music to be treated as music rather than pseudo-archaeology, we are not exactly spoilt for choice during the rest of the year.

There was, for me at least, a little too much that betrayed ‘period’ influence here, more with respect to the orchestra than anything else. It was not so much that the instruments were compelled to play in evidence-free ‘period style’, or what passes for that, as that the strings of the tiny orchestra ( rarely played out as it might have done, a familiar tale for those of us wearily accustomed to enduring so-called ‘historically-informed performances’ on modern instruments. The perversity of having modern instruments and yet being afraid to use them is something I shall never understand, save of course for fear of the fury Adorno so memorably outlined in his essay on Bach, warning, alas, largely unheeded of the ‘sectarian’ nature of Historismus. One could hardly avoid the suspicion, he argued, that the sole concern of Bach’s ‘devotees’ (Liebhaber) was to ensure that ‘no inauthentic dynamics, no modifications of tempo, no excessively large choirs and orchestra’ should be employed. Palpable was the potential fury, ‘lest any more humane impulse’ should become audible. As he pointed out earlier in his essay, the (presumed) ‘absolute’ sound of the eighteenth century – not at all, I might add, an eighteenth-century concept but rather a distorted product of nineteenth-century conceptions of ‘absolute music’ – was already in the early 1950s being falsely elevated to an exclusivist end in itself. Many do not even notice any more, if indeed they ever did.

And so, whilst there were moments in which the orchestra roused itself to play thrillingly, it often sounded subdued, in spite of generally sensible – and varied – tempi being adopted by John Lubbock. (One exception, was a bizarrely fast ‘Surely He hath borne our griefs’, quite at odds with the words – and music.) The trumpet playing (Nick Thompson and Simon Gabriel), however, was excellent, as was Howard Moody’s organ continuo: rather too hyperactive for my taste – ‘All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn’ a case in point – but in some respects, making up for the timidity of the string playing. A few more desks and a little more courage in the fight against ‘authenticity’ would have been welcome, even in so forgiving an acoustic as that of St John’s, Smith Square.

Four young singers all had something creditable to offer. There was a great deal of ornamentation to be heard, very much the fashion nowadays; I have nothing against it in principle, but wonder whether we might hear more of the ‘original’ prior to its ornamentation. Nardus Williams’s clear, bright soprano was not always so full-toned as one might have hoped for, but I suspect that it will develop further in that direction. Her singing was in any case disarmingly sincere, as indeed was that of all of the soloists. Eleanor Edmonds was at her best in ‘He was despised’; there, one might almost have taken her relative darkness of tone for that of a contralto. I liked also the real defiance, which I am tempted to call ‘operatic’, in the final ‘like a refiner’s fire’ of ‘But who may abide the day of his coming’. Chris Turner also adopted a dramatic mode of performance as tenor: mostly welcome, save for a too-frequent ‘sob’ in the voice, which veered towards sentimentality. To my ears, Morgan Pearse was the pick of the bunch. His had all the drama of any of the other performances, but with a more varied palette and a deeper understanding – and communication – of the words and their implications. I had no quibbles at all with his truly excellent performance. A decent sized chorus proved both agile and (relatively) weighty, equally adept in homophonic and contrapuntal music. If, on occasion, I thought Lubbock had OSJ Voices sing too fast and/or too blithely, that was not the fault of the chorus itself, clearly well-trained by Jeremy Jackman.

Further performances will be given on 19th (Dorchester Abbey), 20th (SJE Arts, Oxford), and 21st December (Kings Place). Those on 20th and 21st are advertised as using Lubbock’s ‘new reorchestration for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoon, cello, bass, trumpets, timpani, and organ’. That sounds intriguing: definitely worth a hearing, I suspect. Cuts were made – there is, in any case, no definitive ‘version’ – but nothing too grievous.

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