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Davis's soloists (Susan Gritton, Sara Mingardo, Mark Padmore and Alistair Miles) all brought a welcome whiff of the opera house (as Handel's soloists would have done). But all four are experienced in baroque repertory with period practice so could be expected to sing the runs at high speeds. This meant that Davis had to control his orchestra, ensuring that they kept the dynamics down for the singers. This resulted in some impressive displays of instrumental control and also some very unbaroque dynamic contrasts, such as the ritornelli in 'Why do the nations' suddenly dropping in volume when the singer came in.
But, of course, it is pointless going to a performance of Messiah put on by a symphony orchestra and expecting to hear them sound like the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. I wouldn't want them to. What the LSO brought to the performance was wonderful instrumental control, musicality and superb musicianship. Yes, they phrase the music like Mozart and bows were firmly on the string for much of the performance. But we heard playing of a high order and the string sheen was lustrous, something I have not heard in ages in this period of music.
The performance was not heavy, Davis seemed to relish thinning out the textures and his orchestra responded with some lovely light sounds. Of course, they could deliver the full works where necessary.
Davis was fortunate that his choir, Tenebrae, was similarly able to change its sound from a thread of sound to a very, very full sound without compromising its beautifully focussed tone. All the runs were admirably clean and the singers brought to the work a wonderful commitment and sense of passion.
Here we come to the reasons why, despite being a convinced lover of period performance, Davis's performance was so worth hearing. I have heard a number of period practice performances which were impressive, but sounded as if they had simply been wound up at the beginning and then left to run. Efficient, but lacking in emotion, speeds governed simply by how fast the choir could sing the semi-quaver passages (generally very fast). What Davis and his forces brought to the work were communication, passion and emotional commitment. All of Davis's interventions were for an expressive purpose, this was a very expressive and communicative Messiah. My only real complaints were the sections where he allowed the chorus to sing unaccompanied. Lovely as it was to hear Tenebrae's perfect rendering of 'And with his stripes', Handel did not intend the chorus to be unaccompanied.
Copyright © 12 December 2006
Robert Hugill, London UK