Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
Barbican, 19 December 2016
Over the years, William Christie has done much to introduce French baroque music to British ears, and has opened our ears to Purcell. But I had not heard his take on Messiah live before. It was bound to be rather different from the usual variety of British interpretations, and it was. We are increasingly used to lightly scored performances with moderately sized choirs, in contrast to the cast of thousands of yesteryear, but this very Gallic interpretation added a layer of delicacy and dance-like joie de vivre to Handel’s music, all done in the best possible Bon Goût. Les Arts Florissants fielded a choir of 24 (quite large, by some standards today, and in Handel’s time) and an orchestra with 6, 6, 4, 4, 2 strings, together with five soloists. Both instrumentalists and the chorus were encouraged to keep the volume down, usually by a finger on the Christie lips. This seems to be in line with Handel’s intentions, as indicated by his scoring and, for example, his very limited use of the trumpets. When things did let rip, there was still a sense of restraint amongst the power.
Christie’s Messiah experience goes back a long way. He was the harpsichord continuo player on Christopher Hogwood’s influential 1980 recording with the Academy of Ancient Music and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and recorded it himself with Les Arts Florissants in 1993. The 1980 recording recreated the 1754 Foundling Hospital version, for which Handel specified the addition of two horns, although there are no surviving parts for them. On this occasion, Christie retained the two horns, generally playing octave unison to the trumpets.
There was some fascinating little interpretations issues, most of which worked well. These included the almost quizzical and childlike soto voce initial intonation of Who is this King of Glory (in Lift up your heads), as though the question has come from the cheeky kid at the back of the class. A similar contrast in volumes came in the a cappella opening to Since by man came death, with Christie avoiding the bombast that is often heard in the following line, referring to resurrection. One thing that did not work at all, and seemed very odd, was an accelerando in the final section of the Hallelujah chorus. Incidentally, this had started with one of the laziest example of audience standing I have experienced, with several bars with just one man standing to the far left before a sort of Mexican wave brought most of the rest of the audience to their feet. The soloists were the last to stand, suggesting that Christie might have preferred that nobody did. Until this very British custom dies out (which it shows no sign of doing), I much prefer conductors to give a clear indication to stand before the chorus starts.
With one exception, the soloists were excellent, with soprano Katherine Watson (pictured) being by far the most impressive, not least with her superb use of ornaments and elaborations on the musical line. She is one of the few singers around who can produce a proper trill, as she demonstrated on several occasions. Her I know that my Redeemer liveth was outstanding. She also had excellent engagement with the audience, looking directly at us, rather than over our heads. Emmanuelle de Negri was the second soprano, with Sam Boden (who can also trill) and Konstantin Wolff as tenor and bass. The one exception was the countertenor. The excellent Tim Mead had been billed in earlier adverts for the concert, but in the event an Italian singer I had not heard of sang. He had a bizarre and overly-operatic vocal timbre and style, with badly judged slips into baritone register and excessive use of portamento, added to an almost pantomime stage presence with odd facial expression, grins and grimaces.
I have a few minor gripes. Curiously, the interval was awkwardly placed just after All we like sheep in the middle of the Part 2 Passion section, leaving us to ponder our iniquities during the interval and making nonsense of the flow of the text. Unless you respect the division into three Parts, inserting an interval is not easy without breaking up Part 2. But each part of the story should be allowed to run its course before the break. An additional cellist and double bass player were added to the published orchestra list, but I not sure if they were needed – there were times when the accompaniment was a bit bass heavy. The violin solo in How beautiful are the feet including a surprising amount of vibrato. Béatrice Martin was a very effective continuo player on organ and harpsichord.
Despite (or perhaps because of) bringing a real sensitivity to the performance, William Christie (the red socks are not just a seasonable affectation) seemed rather tetchy at times, several times glaring over his shoulder in response to the inevitable sniffles and coughs of the season, even when they were retained until after a piece had finished. Not surprisingly, this broke the spell just as badly as the coughing might have done, and seemed an unusual gesture from Christie. A couple of days later it is reported that he stopped a performance to throw an audience member out when their phone went off in a Madrid Messiah.
That said, this was a memorable performance.