Handel: Messiah (CD Review - BBC Music Magazine, 2009)
Stephen Layton has conducted Messiahs sporting choirs mustering 18 to 2,000 singers (and orchestras ranging from minimalist to well-upholstered). But at the centre of his Handel universe are the annual St John’s Smith Square Christmas performances with Polyphony – a now venerable festive fixture. Last year’s were recorded in readiness for a timely genuflection to Handel year, and while underpinned by the incisive modern instruments of Britten Sinfonia, the new release has both a fine sense of style and is full of refreshing insights despite the regrettably absent tang of period instruments. (Harry Christopher’s recent recording compounded the ‘period’ advantage by adding theorbo to the continuo with seductively illuminating results.)
Tempos – after a slight low key start – are well judged, and the choir, the odd momentary hint of strain aside, sings with an effortless control and well-modulated fluency that takes wing when gustiness is added to the mix. Layton’s crisp, aerated phrasing might turn ‘All we like sheep’ into a lip-smacking statement of carnivorous preference, but the a cappella introduction of the final Amen is a masterstroke – as Old Testament ‘antico’ counterpoint is finally gilded with the trumpets and drums glister of New Testament Baroquerie. Less defined, perhaps, is the absorbing narrative coherence and sense of ‘whole’ to be found in Harry Christopher’s set, but with, some strong solo singing (particularly from Iestyn Davies), Polyphony’s new Messiah gives the daughters of Zion cause to ‘Rejoice Greatley’.