Concert Review

Handel Messiah The English Concert/Trevor Pinnock with choir and soloists. Prom 28, Royal Albert Hall, 5 August 00


Any performance of Messiah involves compromises. At the Royal Albert Hall it is hard to forget the atmosphere of the traditional mammoth performances which began in Westminster Abbey in 1784 and continued into the days of (some of) our youths. New Grove says that 'no great composer has been more misrepresented by posterity than Handel', this particular oratorio retaining 'the quality of a fetish', and leaving Mozart and 'many smaller men - - free to tinker with the scoring of this most professionally accomplished of composers'.

So adjustment is still needed to today's smaller forces. From the far end of the great oval, across the massed standing promenaders, the effect of the English Concert, based on 34 strings playing without vibrato and a lusty choir of only about forty singers, was pleasing in its clarity and liveliness. This remained the most consistent pleasure of the evening; one quickly became accustomed to modest dynamics.

Of the soloists, the American tenor Kurt Streit, a much recorded Mozart specialist due to make a welcome return to Covent Garden, got the proceedings off to a fine start after the Symphony, bringing real intensity to the words of comfort and hope, leading to 'and the Glory of the Lord' which introduced the Choir of the English Concert - a fine beginning sequence. The temperature dropped with the French singer Monica Groop, who found it hard to communicate feeling in this huge space, singing dutifully parts designated variously as for alto & mezzo-soprano, but without seizing attention. The soprano Hillevi Martinpelto was satisfactory, no more, and bass-baritone Nathan Berg (admired previously in Handel and Schubert) seemed to be in poor voice.

It was above all Trevor Pinnock's night. The hall was, surprisingly, far from full, so after the interval it was a pleasure to watch him at close quarters, batonless, wholly absorbed in the music, mouthing the words and encouraging his musicians to phrase the familiar melodies con amore by shaping their responses with sinuous, mobile fingers, occasionally taking time to play a little at the harpsichord. Here, close by the violins, one forgot the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall; I suspect the soloists too were performing for the microphones and television cameras (a now familiar distraction, with glaring lights an extra intrusion on hot nights).

Kurt Streit's contributions were, again, especially distinguished. Monica Stroop was not really able to sustain the very long 'He was despised and rejected', with its da capo, at Pinnock's very slow tempo. The sound here was very much as to be heard on good equipment at home, far more detail in the orchestra, and increased admiration for a very classy, presumably professional, choir which seems to be one of the best around. For the Hallelujah chorus Pinnock urged everyone to stand (legend has it that this tradition was perpetuated after the tone-deaf King stood up by mistake, thinking it was the National Anthem, and everyone followed suit) and the natural trumpets and baroque timpani (Robert Howes) had their moment of glory. The solo singers looked faintly embarrassed upstanding and silent - it would have been far better for them to have been instructed to join in and Pinnock to have encouraged the audience to sing along with them for this peculiarly British ritual, by way of rehearsal for the Last Night?

Zzzzz Peter Grahame Woolf


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