BWW Review: HANDEL'S MESSIAH, Royal Albert Hall
"Messiah" is probably Handel's best-known piece; written in 1741, the oratorio was originally composed for Easter time, but you don't have to travel far to find a performance of it at this time of year. Handel at Christmas at the Royal Albert Hall is always a special, festive event. The composition has been performed in full at the venue since 1871 and, as of this month, it has been performed a remarkable 524 times.
Part one is the Christmas section, with much of the text coming from Isaiah's prophecies. For many, these passages are so familiar as they are read at every Christmas carol service. Conductor Christoph Altstaedt brings out an urgency to the music with the excellent Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the overture is solemn enough to immediately grab attention.
Part two is Christ's death, with the minor keys being used to express the agony of crucifixtion. The tempo here is not quite sombre enough to convey true distress, but the chorus rendition of "Behold The Lamb Of God" is very moving.
The famous Hallelujah chorus is actually in celebration of Jesus' Resurrection, rather than his birth. As the audience rises to its feet, it is a reminder why this is one of the most famous pieces of Baroque choral music. In much of Handel's work, the soloists dominate, but this is a piece propelled forward by the choir. The Philharmonia Chorus is in wonderful voice and fills the vast hall with beautiful and balanced sound. "For Unto Us A Son Is Born" is suitably bright, lively and optimistic. With excellent diction and huge amounts of energy, the performance of the chorus is the standout of the evening.
Part three is the emotional heart of the composition with the celebration of the Resurrection and hope of redemption. It is here that Altstaedt seems to bring out the best of the orchestra, with a wonderfully lyrical quality to the music.
The soloists have less to do that the choir here, but nevertheless have some beautiful sections. At only 24, William Thomas is a very promising singer; his bass is smooth, with an ease in his ability to drop to the lowest notes. His rendition of "But Who May Abide" is contemplative and well executed.
Elgan Llŷr Thomas is a current English National Opera Harewood Artist. His tenor takes a little while to warm up, but has some nice expression. Marta Fontanals-Simmons gallantly stepped in for an ill Katie Bray. She has a lovely clarity to her voice, with a velvety quality. Her version of "He Was Despised" was full of sorrow and sadness.
After a wonderful performance in the title role of Opera Holland Park's Iolanta, Natalya Romaniw performed the soprano part. She performs with careful phrasing and a beautiful clarity; "I Know My Redeemer Liveth" was soft, tender and very well judged.
The sheer size of the Royal Albert Hall can present the most accomplished performers with a challenge, but the Philharmonia Chorus really rose to the occasion. Overall a beautifully engaging and festive evening.
Photo Credit: Royal Albert Hall