Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

Fair to moderate

Don't you just hate it when, 20 minutes before you're about to go out, you drop the lovely dinner you've just made for yourself all over the floor, breaking a pasta-bowl which you really like and getting spaghetti bolognese up the front of the rather nice skirt you were planning to wear in the process? I do.

By the time this happened I had 10 minutes left for eating my dinner and 10 for finishing getting dressed and doing my make-up, so I had no spare time even for buying something on the way out, still less cooking anything else. I did the only thing I could do in the circumstances: scraped up those parts of the bolognese which were on top of other parts of bolognese rather than directly on the floor, and ate it anyway.

Then, it was off out to the Sheldonian, encountering edling and mr_flay en route and meeting violetdisregard and redkitty23 outside the White Horse opposite the venue. Despite the unfortunate dinner incident, I was fantastically excited: the windows of the Sheldonian glowed invitingly, the slight chill in the air lent an appropriately festive feel to the proceedings, and, well: the Messiah!!!!

In fact, in the end, it was rather a middling performance. That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it. I did, very much. But the Messiah is my favourite piece of music on this entire planet, and therefore also the one I know best. I have in my head a highly-developed 'Fantasy Messiah', with distinct requirements as to which versions of the many variant movements should be played, what speed everything should go at, how particular passages should be phrased and ornamented and which performers I would like as my soloists. This doesn't mean every performance is condemned out of hand for not being my perfect Messiah: in fact, I've been to performances ranging from a carefully-researched 250th anniversary reconstruction to a Brass Band Messiah which I've enjoyed enormously. But it does mean that I am hard to please.

In all fairness, we weren't best placed to appreciate the four soloists (Julia Gooding (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Andrew Kennedy (tenor) and Giles Underwood (bass)). We were up in the 'gods' and also off to one side, just slightly behind where they were standing. So perhaps they sounded better to those lucky few who were sitting directly in front of them. But I think we were capable of making mental allowance for that, and, even having done so, we agreed in the pub afterwards that they all sounded as though they had a more important engagement the following night, and were saving their voices for it.

The soprano was perfectly effective, but not outstanding in any way. The bass actually didn't have quite a low enough register for his part, and this had some unfortunate effects. In particular, I noticed that the words 'and the earth' in the phrase "I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land" had had to be transposed up a small interval at one point. Since one thing Handel does really well is make his music echo the meaning of his libretto, this made nonsense of his careful scoring of 'the heavens' at a much higher pitch than 'the earth'. All rather a pity, as I'd seen the same singer perform in July in The Birds, and he'd come off to much better effect then.

The tenor was overdone and underpowered: needlessly florid in his enunciation, while lacking in strength and impact. And, again, that's a real shame in the particular context of the Messiah. The tenor opens the singing after the orchestral introduction, and if he's not up to scratch, it's a real let-down. I attended a performance once in a cathedral somewhere (Lichfield, maybe?) in which the tenor's treatment of the two opening phrases ("Comfort ye. Comfort ye, my people") was so sensitive, so powerful and so controlled that my mother and I, who were sitting next to one another, simultaneously turned to each other with wide eyes and silently mouthed "Wow!". This guy was a sore disappointment by comparison.

And what about Iestyn Davies, who'd been the real draw for me? In all honesty, I found his voice to be rather a curate's egg. At times, it had a really impressive clarity and strength which reminded me of the powerful voice of James Bowman. But he applied more vibrato than I'd really have liked, and even when he wasn't, there was sometimes an inclination towards a rather warbling tone, which is exactly what I don't like about female altos. I'll certainly give him further chances, and I hope that as he pursues his career he'll choose to bring out the Bowman-like side of his voice rather than the warbly side. But he's not knocking either Robin Blaze or David Cordier off their thrones just yet for me.

I'm not finished with the soloists yet, though. Because the four movements of soprano recitative which follow the 'Pastoral Symphony' in Part I were taken by a pair of boy trebles from the choir. Sadly, I don't know their names: it probably said in my programme, but some bugger half-inched that during the interval, so I can't now check. All I can do is call them Ginger Kid and Glasses Boy. The former seems to have been recognised by the choir-master as the stronger of the two, since he was given a more prominent role. And boy, did he deserve it. It's him, in fact, who makes me so sure that we were not condemning the adult soloists unfairly for holding back when the problem was really where we were sitting. He did not sound like he was holding back at all. He was strong, confident, and utterly, utterly beautiful. Which, given his boyish lungs, rather puts the adult soloists to shame. His spectacle-wearing compatriot had an unfortunate catch in his throat when he first came in, which weakened his initial impact and of course threw him a bit. But both were really very impressive, and Ginger Kid in particular surely has a glowing singing future ahead of him.

All of which takes me on to the choir they came from. It was New College Choir, an all-male institution with a countertenor alto section. Interestingly, I noted before my programme went walkabout that this included two countertenors I've heard perform in Oxford before as soloists: Dana Marsh and Stephen Taylor. They were at something of a numerical disadvantage, however: five of them to something like eight each of basses and tenors and more like 25 boys (again, exact numbers lost with my programme - grrr....). This did take its toll at some points, particularly when the alto and bass sections were interacting while the others were silent. But, on the whole, a strong choir with a good sound.

Similarly, the orchestra was generally good, and big-ups go as ever to the trumpeters, masterfully extracting a decent sound from authentic contemporary instruments. But the musical director wanted to take several of the movements much faster that I would like, giving a kind of 'Express Messiah' feel at various points. Some of the extended passages of quavers or semi-quavers really felt like they were falling over each other, and it wasn't pretty.

On the whole? Five Hallelujah!s out of ten Hallelujah!s. Could do better, but I'm glad I went.
Tags: countertenors, excessive clumsiness, friends, handel, iestyn davies, messiah, music, oxford, seasonal good cheer, sheldonian

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