If Handel’s Messiah is among the most frequently performed choral works of the Western musical tradition, the challenge of rendering it fresh and alive today is monumental. The task, perhaps unwittingly, was proclaimed from high up in the splendid church of St John the Evangelist, where Cantate Domino canticum novum (Sing to the Lord a new song) is painted prominently on the organ case. The forces assembled under conductor John Lubbock rose magnificently to the challenge, bringing in turn excitement and anticipation, heart-breaking sadness and, ultimately, triumph, and at every moment the freshness of a totally new discovery.
Moving from his native Brandenburg-Prussia in his early thirties, Handel brought to the London stage over forty operas, turning later on to the newly popular oratorio genre. His first three English oratorios (Esther, Deborah and Athalia) reflected the widespread contemporary interest in Old Testament stories and subjects and were, in fact, performed in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre in 1733. Some years later, Handel received a libretto on the subject of the Messiah, and the composition was famously (and still astonishingly) completed in just over three weeks, receiving its first performance in Dublin in 1742.
The energy required for that formidable achievement seemed to have infused the choir, whose singers brought a liveliness and commitment as audible as they were visible to their performance. From the first chorus, the choir sang with passion and excellent diction, watching the conductor intently and responding instantly to his every ask of them, whether for a powerful, confident lead, a sudden burst of sound, or a dramatic pianissimo. They communicated, too, with their eyes, revealing their total commitment to both the music and the text. In the gambolling All we like sheep in Part Two, they seemed to revel in the challenging runs and turns, as the lightness of the music demands, contrasting dramatically with the sudden, heavy the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all as the humbling realisation dawned of the guilt of humanity. Handel’s inspired word-painting truly came into its own.
The opening words Comfort ye, My people, saith your God were conveyed with reassuring warmth and intimacy by tenor Dominic Bevan. But far from simply setting the mood for the whole evening, he became the bearer of much sterner tidings later on, with the prediction Thou shall dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel, reaching a powerful climax over the persistently disruptive and nagging orchestral accompaniment. Bevan was at every stage more than equal to the huge demands of the role, whether musical, narrative or emotional. The bass soloist, Daniel Barrett, filled the church with cavernous resonance, growing in menace as he portrayed the Lord’s shaking of the heavens and the earth. This gave us a taste of what was to come, not least in the fast and furious aria Why do the nations. Here, Barrett provided rock-like authority and control over the quivering, shimmering orchestral accompaniment, qualities demonstrated again in his final aria in partnership with the compelling trumpet solo.
Charlotte Tetley announced her arrival with an aria of virtuosic difficulty, But who may abide. She transformed the mood seamlessly from the melting grace and uncertain questioning of the opening to the terrifying vision of the appearance of the Messiah at the day of His coming. Here, the refiner’s fire set the church metaphorically alight as Tetley’s eyes flashed, her vocal dexterity reflecting awe at the prospect. Her emotional range was amply illustrated throughout the performance, including in the lyrical beauty of her duet with soprano Hannah Fraser-Mackenzie, ending Part One with the same comfortable hope with which it began. The soprano provided one of the high points of the performance. Singing throughout with an infallible purity of tone, Fraser-Mackenzie reached particular heights of innocent faith reflected in the simplicity of her interpretation of I know that my Redeemer liveth. No one could fail to be moved by the affecting ornamentation in the suddenly quiet repeat that emphasised her conviction as she sang of seeing none other than God Himself.
The orchestra held the entire work together, sparkling or magisterial as required, providing a constant foundation for the sequence of visions, histories and prophecies, the cellos particularly alert to the changing rhythms. The string players used only just as much vibrato as was needed, creating notable transparency and clarity of tone, while the entire orchestra managed the variety of tempi with unfailing incisiveness. The continuo gave vivid colour to both the great choruses and the dramatic arias. The celebrated Pastoral Symphony in Part One was sustained and suitably autumnal, rather than spring-like, and throughout the playing was impeccably precise under the embracing, commanding direction of John Lubbock, who hardly needed a score in front of him, so attentive was he at every moment to the expectations and responsiveness of his players.
The audience had duly stood for the Hallelujah chorus at the end of Part Two. One can only assume that they were so overcome by the musical paean of praise for the King of Kings that they forgot to applaud, though this was more than compensated for by the deserved acclamation that awaited soloists, choir, orchestra and of course their beloved conductor at the very end.