“This is the best of me”
Handel, Messiah. OSJ Voices, Orchestra of St John’s, directed by John Lubbock.
Dorchester Abbey 21st December 2019
Handel’s Messiah is woven into British cultural life more intimately than perhaps any other extended composition. It describes in three parts the prophecy and birth of Christ, his betrayal and death, and finally the promised triumph of resurrection and eternal life. Charles Jennens provided the composer with a libretto of cunning and allusive simplicity, drawn on the resonant language of the King James Bible, to present an account of Christianity as God’s gift to his creation, quoting extensively from the Old Testament, and only referring directly to Christ when the piece turns to direct narrative. And yes, Christmas is its time, as much as Carols from King’s and all that figgy pudding.
Given the quality of the verbal material, the unity of composition (Handel wrote it in a fury of creativity, in less than three weeks), and the consistent appeal of the story, it is perhaps surprising that so many performances lack dramatic sweep, emotional communication and verve, serving up instead a dully drawn map of a well trodden path, spread out before the congregations of the seen it all, heard it all before, anaesthetised. But the English religio-musical world is, with honourable exceptions, dominated by a tightly knit Oxbridge chapel and cathedral clique, which operates an effective cartel; the conductors tend to be organists, many of whom have studied the art of conducting only perfunctorily, and some of whom lack understanding of singing, in which the intake of breath followed by the arching phrase is fundamental – a world away from that of their instrument which is, as Stravinsky so memorably opined, the monster that never breathes. Organists are frequently invited to serve as advisors to appointing panels at colleges and cathedrals and, with fewer honourable exceptions, they tend to advise in their own image, so the inhibited, etiolated style of our music making endures from one generation to another.
As a nation, we have become addicted to the “heavenly” sounds of King’s College Chapel recordings and broadcasts, with their army of imitators , imagining that a bleached perfection backed up by intellectual preciosity is an adequate response to our loves, joys and griefs. Well, it ain’t, and every now and then we are reminded of the fact in dramatic fashion.
Four days before Christmas, a packed audience in the Abbey Church of Dorchester upon Thames, heard Handel’s masterpiece delivered by the Orchestra of St John’s (formerly of Smith Square), the OSJ Voices prepared by the multi-talented Jeremy Jackman, and four young soloists, all under the baton of the experienced and much respected John Lubbock. As an outfit, the OSJ band wagon gives a lift to both amateurs and professionals, but is marked out by the love and generosity with which it does so, and much programme space was devoted to the community projects in which it is closely engaged, such as an international presence in events for autistic musicians, as well as displaced and disadvantaged performers.
At no point were we invited to admire merely the technique of the players or singers, although Louise Wayman came perilously close with some spectacular soprano ornaments which we forgave her because of the radiance of her delivery and the sheer beauty of her voice. Like Bach’s Passions, Messiah is best offered with simple sincerity, and the mezzo soprano Charlotte Tetley described the Good Shepherd’s feeding of his flock with touching affection, as well as rousing the teller of good tidings to Zion with vivacity. Xavier Hetherington was the elegant tenor – I declare an interest, and say only that he held his own and made his mark, while Tom Mole, the 22 year old bass baritone, gave us a remarkably fine and consistent account of a role which really requires two different singers. To say that he will find more solidity and depth as he gets older would be to carp – his trumpet sounded triumphally, the dead were raised incorruptible, and we were changed.
And finally, what of the maestro and his vision? Terms such as “authentic” and “traditional” seemed irrelevant. Both chorus and orchestra responded vigorously, every phrase rose and fell with life and interest, the speed and atmosphere of every movement flowed from its predecessor and on to the next, and if the ensemble slipped once or twice, who was to worry?
The Pastoral Symphony, which so often describes a soupy syrupy 19th century scene, took us to quite another place: we found ourselves on the dusty hillside with the shepherds, barely able to hear the remote Italian bagpipes accompanying the clog dance in the village below. Work getting in the way of a party, again. Imagine our delight when the angel turned up to tell us that the real action was not down there but up here, after all this time, in the dark, under the stars.
And it was that distance and quietness which, after the blazing delivery of “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain”, began perhaps the finest “Amen” ever written, starting from almost nothing, a long and gradual crescendo, Handel’s lines rising and falling, rising again, up and up, and at the summit his magic, triumphant descending peal of bells, the long mysterious silence, and the final majestic suspension and eternal resolution. Those cold, inhibited British leapt to their feet and bellowed their gratitude with joyful tears and laughter. A night to remember.