Every so often it hits me (again) that there are certain masterpieces - universal, deathless works known and loved by seemingly everyone - that have so far passed me by completely.
I do feel slightly odd about this. I'm drawn to intensity/extremity - that's years of listening to scary metal and jazz for you - and perhaps that's the reason I've seen 'Elektra' (twice), 'Wozzeck', or stood through the entire Ring cycle at the Proms in a single week... without ever getting near a 'Traviata', 'Magic Flute' or 'Fidelio'. And three decades of immersion in rock/folk/pop/you-name-it before broadening my horizons must surely be why I was instantly smitten with classical 'art song'. I like hooks, riffs, tautness, precision, and always will - so maybe it's no wonder I managed to gather an embarrassing number of Schubert lieder recordings before it even occurred to me to listen to his symphonies. (Error since rectified!)
I've had further cause to think about this recently, thanks to getting handsomely lubricated at some festive office drinks. While much of the evening is hazy, I have a clear recollection of trying to convince a colleague that Schubert has more riffs than Led Zeppelin. I think this is a scientific, mathematical fact - Schubert made it past the 600-song mark, and LZ, well, didn't. But I wasn't really debating at my highest level. Instead I'm rather fearful I was trying to hum the hook for 'Fischerweise' (appropriately enough) as if it was 'Whole Lotta Love'. Oh yes. I'm all about spreading the word.
Anyway... we had booked for the Barbican 'Messiah' this year - and it suddenly dawned on me that I'd never heard the 'Messiah' performed live. Not only that, even though Mrs Specs had a couple of copies in the house (I suppose the more recent recording she bought is, in its own small way, the Second Coming) - I hadn't heard it all the way through. I felt like I had, because the 'hits' are so familiar - but that's not the same thing at all. I realised I didn't actually know quite what to expect - the best way to turn up to anything.
(This is the Balthasar Denner portrait of Handel - apparently the image is in the public domain.)
Of course, that's not 100% true. We'd booked for this particular performance (without wishing to blaspheme, there are a few Messiahs knocking about at this time of year) because of our admiration for two of the soloists, soprano Carolyn Sampson and countertenor Iestyn Davies (singing the alto part). The rest of the team were tenor Allan Clayton and bass Robert Davies (both new to us), with the Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices, conducted by Eamonn Dougan.
I think I struck lucky on my first time, because everything I heard (and saw - more on this later) felt spectacularly good. Clearly, I'm still new to the work as a whole, but one hearing is enough to understand its popularity. Particularly striking to me was how seamlessly the Baroque-motorik zip (Pawel Siwczak's harpsichord seemed brilliantly hyperactive, its glorious rhythms slicing through the sound) is married to the slower passages, more about breaking your heart than the speed limit, focusing your attention not just on the 'higher' subject matter but the sheer beauty of the melodies.
I confess that the only time I've seen a Handel opera live - 'Xerxes' - I found it slightly problematic, because of the multiple-repetitions of lines that seemed to hobble the action. 'Messiah' is an oratorio rather than an opera: here, the more modest levels of repetition actually work a treat, partly because it's an appropriate topic for a more ritualistic, liturgical treatment, but also because it so mesmerises and involves you that you become caught up even further in the emotion. Iestyn Davies's spine-tingling performance of 'He was despised' was especially fine here. Then the famous choruses - especially the 'Hallelujah!' at the end of Part 2 - allow that emotion to burst, the outpouring of sound providing the much-needed release.
But lack of plot doesn't have to mean lack of drama, and some subtle touches of stagecraft seemed to boost singers and players alike. The Barbican Hall stage is wide, and a pair of soloists were seated at each of the extreme edges: CS and ID to the audience's left, AC and RD to the right. I don't know how many Messiahs use this effect, but even the fact that they had quite a long walk to come into the centre of the stage to sing created some movement, and brought out a sense of timing (Carolyn S, for example, conveyed such a sense of bliss after one of her sections that she stayed put in apparent rapture, holding the pose for what felt like a good few minutes after she stopped singing, before finally walking back to her seat).
Also - the left side, with the soprano and alto, seemed very much 'the side of the angels', heaven; while AC's warm, rich tenor and RD's subterranean, but agile bass represented earth, on the right. This supports the text, as the soprano and alto focus on Christ, while the tenor and bass more on the activities and reactions of the people interacting with him. The two worlds are finally brought together with 'O death, where is thy sting?', as the alto and tenor, 'meeting' at both sides of the podium, sing a duet.
I also liked the way that the only time a soloist looked anywhere other than outwards towards the audience was during 'The trumpet shall sound', when RD turned to face trumpet-player Paul Archibald (superb) in acknowledgement that this section was also a true duet. Earlier in the evening, we had already heard the trumpets, but from a window halfway up the back of the stage - the closest the Barbican could get to celestial!
Although I've made specific mention of two players, I would have to give equal credit to everyone in the Sinfonia and Voices. With the Barbican's acoustic, you sense there really is no hiding place for groups of this size (every instrument apart from the violins was represented on stage by only one or two musicians). Under ED's direction, they were pin-sharp and expressive - sometimes individually audible, yet completely tight, the ideal orchestra working as 'single organism'.
In the end, though, the soloists give the piece its character. CS was absolutely in her element: combining breathtaking accuracy with real beauty, committed, heartfelt, graceful. ID seems able to achieve a superhuman purity of sound, coupled here with a fitting serenity. AC's singing had real attack, making a character of his part, refreshingly 'non-stately' and bringing a personal, engaging and earth(l)y voice into the mix, while RD was sonorous, portentous - exactly the heft needed to underpin the others.
A genuinely glorious achievement.
Thank you, everyone, for reading the blog - I really appreciate the support.
Work mayhem in the run-up to Christmas - plus the imminent Invasion Of The In-Laws! - mean that, while other stuff takes over, I'm likely to put my Specs away now for the holiday season. I'll be back as early as possible in the New Year with my usual look back at the old one.
In the meantime, I hope you and yours have a happy, peaceful and - hopefully - musical Yuletide.