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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.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 15th, 2005 09:38 pm (UTC)
Fantasy Messiah
Soprano I: Sophie Daneman (for the trebly bits)
Soprano II: Susan Gritton (for the more florid/emotional stuff)
Mezzo: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (for If God be for us and He shall feed his flock)
Countertenor: Andreas Scholl
Tenor: Mark Padmore[1]
Bass: Peter Kooy.

1: A certain mongoose of my acquaintance will accuse me of heresy. But not until she hears Mark "Mr Tony Blair" Padmore.

I have a recording (Herreweghe) with Scholl and Padmore.

Now, what about a fantasy Bach St. Matthew?
Dec. 15th, 2005 11:09 pm (UTC)
Re: Fantasy Messiah
Well, you'd better play me some of Mr Padmore, then, hadn't you? I am prepared to listen to any good singer, and if you know of a tenor who can knock... *grin* I am now allowed to call him Charles... off his perch, then I want to hear him.

As for the Bach St Matthew, I just have one thing to say. 11 March.
Dec. 16th, 2005 11:12 am (UTC)
Re: Fantasy Messiah
Hee, very nice. I do like Susan Gritton - I have a recording of her in Theodora with Robin Blaze. I have not (as far as I know) heard Mr. Padmore, so I cannot comment there.

My own line-up is something like this:

Soprano: Barbara Bonney. (Barbara Schlick makes a good stand-by. But this is a fantasy, so who needs stand-bys?)

I do like the idea of having boy trebles for certain arias. I have a King's College Choir recording (with James Bowman) where they take all the soprano arias, but tend overall to agree with the director of Wednesday night's performance in saving them for the very ethereal movements which follow the 'Pastoral'. So for those, J. Random Choirboy - in fact, why not Ginger Kid from Wednesday night? He'd certainly do a good job.

I should also (and you're welcome to laugh) now like to hear Alessandro Moreschi audition for a couple of the more sentimental arias, such as 'How beautiful are the feet'. He might not make it into the final line-up, since his style would hardly be compatible with that of my other soloists. But the audition would be extremely pleasurable in itself.

Countertenor: Mainly, David Cordier. But Robin Blaze for 'He shall feed his flock' and 'Thou art gone up on high', plus the associated recitatives.

Tenor: Sadly I cannot remember the name of the fellow who impressed me so much in Lichfield(?) Cathedral. Would that I'd had a livejournal back then, as it would have been written down and preserved for me. But him, please. Robert Tear would also be acceptable.

Bass: Michael George.

Bach's St. Matthew I haven't given enough thought to. But it's certainly worthy of some. Shall report back when I've had a think.
Dec. 16th, 2005 11:21 am (UTC)
Re: Fantasy Messiah
My problem with La Schlick is that her name sounds too much like a sound effect one would find on sexylosers.com .
Dec. 15th, 2005 11:26 pm (UTC)
As you'll have gathered, my personal preference would be for Charles Daniels to sing the tenor part. But then I really enjoy hearing him sing almost anything that isn't out-and-out operatic.

I haven't heard Iestyn Davies yet, but for me it's Michael Chance he's up against (I leave Andreas Scholl out of the running, as I don't think there is anyone who could possibly knock him off his perch). Robin Blaze has a beautiful and ethereal voice, but for me he's just a bit too completely sexless. I like my countertenors to sound like men.

Oh, and on the subject of countertenors, if you've never heard Mole sing you are in for a real treat. I promise you, he's got an impressive voice.
Dec. 16th, 2005 11:16 am (UTC)
I think Robin Blaze is probably best-suited to chamber music: Byrd, Purcell and the like. But I've heard him in opera, oratorio and the B Minor Mass too, and thoroughly enjoyed them all. I just love the delicate purity of his tone.

I've heard Mole over mp3, but that is all so far. I hope I shall get to hear a little of the real thing at the end of the month.
Dec. 16th, 2005 12:29 am (UTC)
All I can do is call them Ginger Kid and Glasses Boy

Or, perhaps, Ron and Harry? :P

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.

I know what you mean...there are certain pieces of music that I adore and I have a certain image in my mind as to how they should be played out. There is a real problem in having an absolutely favourite piece of music (or even a song) and then it just doesn't live up to your own standards when it's performed live...I think perhaps with a lot of musical performances today, much of the creativity is lost so it inevitably ends up as a sort-of damp squib.

Incidentally, if none of this made sense then I heartily apologise: I got dragged out by the MA students tonight and had a few glasses of wine so I"m not necessarily the most coherent at present :)
Dec. 16th, 2005 11:17 am (UTC)
Yep, the Ron and Harry comparison was made in the pub afterwards!

And don't worry, you make perfect sense! Glad you had yourself a good time. :)
Dec. 16th, 2005 09:36 am (UTC)
>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.

Heh, exactly what I would have done :)
Dec. 16th, 2005 11:18 am (UTC)
Oh, good - I'm glad I'm not alone in my disgrace! Anyway, I didn't get food-poisoning, so it was obviously all right.
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