Review: GOSPEL MESSIAH, Royal Albert Hall

Hallelujah! Marin Alsop's uplifting interpretation makes its European debut

By: Dec. 08, 2023
Review: GOSPEL MESSIAH, Royal Albert Hall
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Review: GOSPEL MESSIAH, Royal Albert Hall Thirty years after American conductor Marin Alsop created a radical interpretation of the Handel masterwork in her homeland, she brings her Gospel Messiah to the Royal Albert Hall for its European debut.

Messiah has always been a Royal Albert Hall tradition, having been featured in their  programme a total of 568 times since 1872, but it has never quite been presented like this. Those decrying what could be perceived as iconoclastic changes will do well to look under Messiah’s bonnet and recognise that it has always been a mélange of musical concepts. Anyone with an informed ear can pick out influences adopted by Handel from across Europe: the anthems typical of Handel’s England, French overtures, Italian recitatives and so on.

The musical arrangements from Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson centre this version clearly away from the Old World and into the New. There are still many choral parts - sung beautifully and with such verve and power by the London Adventist Chorale and the BBC Symphony Chorus - but the more orchestral parts have given way to an array of American music styles including jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, gospel, and pop. 

Throughout, Alsop is front and centre waving the baton over the BBC Concert Orchestra, and flanked by South African tenor Zwakele Tshabalala (returning from last year’s more traditional Messiah) and British soul singer Vanessa Haynes. The trumpets, saxophones and trombones and Tshambalala’s scatting all play a major part in creating a fantastic atmosphere; at times, you can close your eyes and almost imagine being in New Orleans. 

About two hour long from nose to tail, this snappier version retains many of the more famous arias. Some of their names have been sensibly modernised and abbreviated (“Ev'ry valley shall be exalted” becomes “Every Valley” and “Thus saith the Lord of hosts” is here called “Thus said the Lord”, for example) while the ultimate choral money shot that is “Hallelujah!” is saved for the very end instead of two-thirds of the way through. It is all still recognisably Handel's Messiah but quite a few country miles away from its 18th-century origins.

Quite why it has taken so long for Gospel Messiah to come across the pond is a bit of mystery but a game audience on a cold December night took to it well, clapping along and cheering towards the end. Let’s hope that this isn’t the last we’ll see of it.

Gospel Messiah took place on 7 December at Royal Albert Hall.


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