Handel: Messiah
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr

Live-stream from The Barbican, 19 December 2020

In what is becoming the ‘new normal’, the annual Academy of Ancient Music’s London performance of Handel’s Messiah was live-streamed (from behind a paywall) from London’s Barbican Hall. The socially-distanced, modest-sized period instrument orchestra (5,4,2,2,1 strings) and 17-strong choir filled the entire width of the stage with no apparent loss of acoustic focus in the recorded sound – the acoustics were excellent. Like any well-designed concert hall, the Barbican Hall retains the same acoustics whether or not there is an audience presence, the empty seats designed to have the same acoustic properties when empty as when sat upon. As far as I can tell, the concert is no longer available to watch, although this website might lead you to a possible viewing. The programme notes can be accessed here.

The four soloists were Rowan Pierce, Iestyn Davies, Ben Johnson, Ashley Riches, all giving supurb performances in the differing moods that their respective solos span. I was impressed with their use of appropriate ornamentation, for example, from Ben Johnson in the opening Comfort ye my people. Richard Eggar’s lively conducting revealled some telling details, notable in O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion where his lingering on notes was very effective, as was his contrast between the jovially humorous All we like sheep have gone astray as it disolves into its sotto voce second section.

One notable aspect of the performance is that the trumpeters for Glory to God in the highest were positioned towards the back of the stalls seats of the Barbican Hall, reflecting Handel’s marking in the score “da lontano e un poco piano” – “quietly, from afar”. It seems that his original intention was to have the trumpets offstage to highlight the effect of distance.

Set against a backdrop of what looks frustratingly like organ pipes (the Barbican has no organ) the video quality was also excellent, the unobtrusive remote controlled cameras positioned amongst the performers giving clear close-ups – something both performers and on-line audiences will have to get used to rather than the usual remote visuals of a live concert. The organ itself was one of the meatier continuo organs on the London circuit, here played by Julian Perkins who, along with cellist Joseph Crouch and David Miller, theorbo, were an impressive continuo group, with Richard Eggar providing the harpsichord continuo from his usual horse-riding position astride a sideways placed stool. Bojan Čičić led the Academy of Ancient Music orchestra.

An interval discussion between Rowan Pierce, historian Ruth Smith, and Barbican director Sir Nicolas Kenyon ranged from the background to the original performance (during a dreadful winter and famine in Dublin), the 19th century mass-choir and choral society tradition to a very touching reflection on the situation today for performing musicians from Rowan Pierce.

Photo: Mark Allan/Barbican