By Janet Fraser
I spent Friday night glued to my television. Gone With the Wind? 9
55BI> Weeks? No, Handel's oratorio Messiah. Yes, even Handel has a video clip. At 175 minutes, it's arguably the world's longest, but a video clip nevertheless.
This video clip was filmed in Westminster Abbey and is as close to most video clips as George Bush is to a Nobel Peace Prize. Due to the production being filmed in 1982, the sound is not of the best quality, but viewed overall, the performance can only be described as glorious.
Handel's music, which sets "words selected from the scriptures by Charles Jennens" is by turns awe inspiring ("Surely"), tender ("Behold a virgin") and toe tapping ("Rejoice Greatly"). One receives the impression of a performance lovingly constructed and passionately adhered to. It is odd, however, that director Christopher Hogwood, himself a fine keyboard player, directs the performance as a modern conductor from a podium rather than from the harpsichord. Perhaps he is maintaining the role of director rather than actually conducting.
The tenor in this production is Paul Elliott, who has one of those English voices which sounds about 15 years old but is possessed by an artist of quite reasonable years. "Comfort ye", which is a beautiful piece in (almost) any interpretation, is carried along at a singer's tempo which allows it to flow musically. "Every valley" floats with the divine lightness of the whole production, and Elliott sings it with understated fervour and great delicacy.
The motif which struck me again and again was the unbearable lightness of the performance. Anyone who has heard the 700 earnest Mormons' version of "For Runtew Wuss" will really appreciate Hogwood's "trifles lighter than air" recreation of a sadly overdone chorus. A difficult piece in any language ("For unto us" in English) with runs that will fudge up easier than not, but Hogwood's choristers trill it sweetly through giving it the sound it deserves.
Judith Nelson as soprano 1 gives an impression more of canary-like warbling than straight singing in "Rejoice greatly", while David Thomas, bass, explodes the myth about deep voices being unwieldy. His top notes have a glorious, tear-jerking sweetness and his runs a perfect even quality at all pitches. His interpolated deep notes at cadence points have likewise perfect pitch and colour.
Perhaps the most important feature of the Academy of Ancient Music (delightful name too) is that the performers are using original instruments. Not copies of old instruments, but actual surviving instruments are played. In fact, if one buys their CDs, tapes etc, the pedigree of each instrument is given. For example, a harpsichord by Jacobus Kirckman, London, 1766, or a violin by Mariani, 1660.
One place the original instruments are really important is the mezzosoprano aria "He was despised" sung by Carolyn Watkinson, another baroque performer of some note. This aria has been taken at tempo di dreary at various times and murdered by it. Hogwood's tempo is sensible and carries it along without spoiling the rich voice performing it. The violins have a substantial, no-nonsense sound to them which contributes to the strength of the rendition.
One of the greatest drawcards of the recording is the inclusion of Emma Kirkby as Soprano 2. The intelligence of the woman as a performer is not to be underestimated. Her musicality is flawless and, when combined with Hogwood's interpretation, becomes magnificent to hear. As Soprano 2 she sings only a few arias, although each is admirably suited to her remarkable voice.
Keeping a truly baroque note, the choir is all male — something English churches seen to have mastered. The choir is brilliant and a credit not only to themselves but to choirmaster and organist Simon Preston. The trebles fidget around a fair bit, lending a sort of ordered Hogarthian quality to the choir but also giving an air of reality to otherwise machine-like faultless singers.
All in all, it's a hard night's entertainment to go past. Hogwood's attention to historical detail combines with the magnificent musicians to make Handel's masterpiece a vibrant, exciting production. Probably the best way to do it is to see the video and then buy the compact disc, which has sound only a live performance could equal.