“This is the best of me”
Handel, Messiah. OSJ Voices, Orchestra of St John’s, directed by John Lubbock.
Dorchester Abbey 21st December 2019
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.