tue 07/07/2020

BBC Singers, St James's Baroque, Hill, Temple Church | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Singers, St James's Baroque, Hill, Temple Church

BBC Singers, St James's Baroque, Hill, Temple Church

A dutiful Messiah saved by sensational soloist Robin Tritschler

The BBC Singers: too skilled, on this occasion, for their own good?

There’s a reason why many people think Handel and, particularly his Messiah, is dull. Relatively easy to play, his music is incredibly difficult to perform well. Take this Temple Winter Festival outing with choral expert David Hill conducting the immensely skilled BBC Singers who can, and largely do, sing everything; four soloists all banishing grandiose, wobbly vibrato from days of yore; and the accomplished St James’s Baroque. There was nothing wrong with the performance... Unless, that is, you wanted the intensity, passion and, yes, the drama that Handel wrote.

Scale is the key factor in any Messiah. Debate continues to rage about the size of forces best suited to this 1742 oratorio. Decades of stodgy, over-populated performances were mercifully cast aside by the 20th-century shift to original instruments which had the same effect as cleaning centuries of candle-grease and discolouration from an old master. The rich tonal variety of gut strings brought fresh colours, and leaner forces allowed for welcome clarity.

With a choir of 26 and a band of 20, this looked to be ideal and, from the strains of the orchestral opening, the sound Hill drew from the orchestra was unwaveringly elegant. The upper strings in particular achieved a glassy tone that allowed moments of contemplation to shimmer. But, excluding the fine trumpeters, it seemed as if the two cellists and the double-bass players were the only ones interested in creating a sense of urgency.

His technique is so accomplished that his voice sounds wonderfully free

This was less about choice of tempi – flowing and uncontroversial throughout – and more about attack. Had no one listened to the text they were supposed to be animating?  Even if you choose not to have the orchestra emulate the tenor’s rage on “All they that see Him, laugh him to scorn”, surely those fast, insistently repeated intervals should sound at least urgent, with bite? Anything, in fact, apart from what we were given which was little above politeness.

Cumulatively, the effect was one of safety and, dare I say it, a lack of animation. Startling to report, the same was true of the choral singing. In their defence, from where I was sitting in the nave, the slightly swimmy acoustic paid the BBC Singers’ diction no favours. But as with the orchestra, there was a puzzling lack of commitment. In the fast, more difficult writing of the second part, they raised their game but they proceeded dutifully through Part One as if coasting on their skill with excellent intonation but little detailed dramatic range. Little in this story of birth, life and death seemed to matter to them and, therefore, to us.

The bright-sounding soprano section blended well but the lack of energy, focus and communication from the other sections was disappointing. (The tenors were the worst offenders.) The vast majority had their heads in their copies nearly throughout. If you’re premiering something that’s forgiveable, but with the Messiah? Yet near the end, singing the unaccompanied sections of “Since by man came death,” everything fell into place: the sound hushed in awe, the blend impeccable. If only they’d brought that level of concentrated commitment to the rest it might have lifted from well-achieved to exciting.

Robin TritschlerSoprano Ruby Hughes never quite settled on a style that allowed her lines to flow and although counter-tenor David Allsopp drew attention to a limpid “He was despised” by temporarily abandoning his copy of the score, he still couldn’t match the expressive power of the two other men.

The excellent Neal Davies coupled his trademark vivid attention to textual detail with his beautifully secure bass sound. But, remarkably, even he paled beside the exemplary singing of Robin Tritschler (pictured above) who made you wish there was more for the tenor to sing. Tritschler laid down the gauntlet with an exquisite “Comfort ye my people,” with entirely natural vowels and perfect vocal placement. His technique is so accomplished that his voice sounds wonderfully free. Every single phrase sounded unostentatiously considered but, more importantly, every one of those phrases was welded to the musical line and his expression of the text.

The performance was recorded for BBC Radio 3. It’s possible the microphones will have picked up details lost on the live audience. Whatever the case, it’s worth hearing solely for Tritschler’s thrillingly beautiful singing.

Had no-one listened to the text they were supposed to be animating?


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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