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Concert reviews

GF Händel: Messiah (HWV 56)
Julia Gooding, soprano; Robin Blaze, alto; James Gilchrist, tenor; Michael George, bass
Choir of New College, Oxford; The Academy of Ancient Music
Dir: Paul Goodwin

concert: Utrecht, Dec 20, 2002

It is almost inevitable: when Christmas comes, Händel's Messiah is performed. One could argue that there is much more to perform in the weeks before Christmas. And some ensembles are looking for relatively unknown repertoire. But that doesn't mean that there is no place for the well-known masterworks, traditionally associated with Christmas. And it guarantees a full house. That was also the case ovn Friday, December 20, in Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Utrecht.
Paul Goodwin took a dramatic approach, which was a little surprising after the Sinfonia at the start, which was too slow and a little stiff. But after that most tempi were satisfying, sometimes even remarkably fast. In particular the second part was full of drama. Some choruses were sung at high speed, and at the end of Part Two the sections were following each other without any breathing space, which I thought was very effective.
The contributions of the soloists varied from excellent to unsatisfying. The soprano Julia Gooding was shining throughout the whole performance. She has a beautiful voice, sang with great feeling and understanding and her articulation was immaculate. The highlight was the aria 'I know that my redeemer liveth' which got a very moving performance.
Equally moving was Robin Blaze's interpretation of 'He was despised', with beautiful and stylish ornamentation in the dacapo. It became clear during the evening that his voice is better suited to the more introverted parts than to the dramatic. In the aria 'But who may abide' he was convincing in the A section, but in the B section ("For he is a like a refiner's fire") he was too harmless and smooth. The tenor James Gilchrist seems to be the opposite. I didn't like the recitative 'Comfort ye' and the aria 'Eve'ry valley' very much, where I found his vibrato irritating. But he was brilliant at the end of Part Two, in the recitative 'He that dwelleth' and the aria 'Thou shalt break them'. Michael George was competent, but for some reason he always leaves me cold. Something seems missing there; his interpretation is too one-dimensional to my taste.
The Academy of Ancient Music was playing very well, but not always able to realise the dramatic approach Paul Goodwin had chosen. With 9 violins and 2 violas it was a little too small. But the overall balance with the choir was satisfying.
There is no doubt, though, that the choir was the star of the night. The choruses in Messiah are not unproblematic. Quite often they sound thick and massive, and therefore can be tiring. The balance within the choir and between choir and orchestra is not always satisfying. It strikes me how most of these problems disappear when a choir of boys and men is used, like here. And the Choir of New College Oxford is certainly one of the very best of its kind. The 15 or so trebles, 4 male altos, 4 tenors and 7 basses gave fabulous performances of the choruses. It was a sheer demonstration of the qualities of this choir: power, subtlety, clarity and transparency and an impressive flexibility to meet the demands of Händel's music.
One of the qualities of this choir is its dramatic power, which makes it especially suitable to perform Händel's oratorios. This is a direct result of the way the voices, including the trebles, are trained. Otherwise choruses like 'He trusted in God' and 'Let us break their bonds asunder' couldn't have been sung with such powerful biting accents. And even in choruses which were taken at breakneck speed the articulation was crisp and clear. Power doesn't exclude subtlety, though, as was showed in 'Since by man came death', where the contrasts in the text are so impressively reflected in the music. Other highlights were 'For unto us a child is born' and 'Hallelujah'. The closing chorus 'Worthy is the lamb' was monumental.
As in all performances there were things which could have been better. I already made some critical remarks about the performances of the soloists. As far as the interpretation as such is concerned, I would wish more variation in tempo within some pieces. A little rubato here and there would be most welcome. Tempi were a little too strict to my taste. And the recitatives could have been taken with more rhythmic freedom.
But these are minor criticisms considering the remarkable level of the performance as a whole. The audience was very satisfied, giving the performers a long standing ovation. And the loud roars of approval for the choir were fully deserved.

Johan van Veen (© 2002)

Relevant links:

Choir of New College, Oxford
The Academy of Ancient Music

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