OAE Player: Messiah

Handel: Messiah
Orchetstra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, Christian Curnyn
recorded in St Paul’s, Knightsbridge, released 27 December 2020

This recording of Messiah was made over a couple of days in the lead up to Christmas under London’s just-applied Tier 4 Covid-19 regulations. It was rehearsed and recorded in the sumptuous mid-to-late 19th century Anglo-Catholic church of St Paul’s, Knightsbridge. One of the first of the Oxford Movement churches, it’s 1843 galleried preaching-box design gained some Victorian bling with the addition of Bodley’s 1892 chancel with its rood screen and reredos which, along with the 1870/1920 wall painting and panels, form the visual background to the performance.

The recording starts with the bemasked players arriving at St Paul’s and preparing for the first rehearsal. For the performance, the small orchestra (3, 2, 1, 1, 1 strings) are socially distanced in front of the Bodley rood screen, with the 12 chorus singers singing from the choir stalls behind it and the soloists stepping forward to stand just in front of the chancel entrance, in front of the screen. The microphones are unobtrusive – far more so, in fact, than the dozen or more white, part-burnt but initially unlit candles spaced around the orchestra. The first of these was lit by the OAE leader Huw Daniel at the start of Part the Second, as daylight began to fade, the others following. A rather nice touch of authenticity is that the initial titles are given as ‘Part the First’ and ‘Sinfony’ rather than the usual modern spellings.

The acoustics of the space give a warm feel to the sound, which is very well captured by the sound engineers. The spacing of the singers and orchestra means that they are contained within a fairly narrow but deep space, rather than the more usual wide but shallow space of, for example, the Barbican’s pre-Christmas Academy of Ancient Music’s Messiah, reviewed here. Any technical issues this might have caused in the timing of the combined forces are overcome in the recording. The trumpeters for Glory to God in the highest are in one of the side galleries of the nave, reflecting Handel’s marking in the score “da lontano e un poco piano” (quietly, from afar), at least in their positioning, if not their volume. There is a suggestion that Handel might have intended them to be off-stage altogether. They later appear in the pulpit and on the stairs.

The four soloists were Anna Dennis, soprano, Christine Rice, mezzo-soprano, Hugo Hymas, tenor, and Dingle Yandell, bass, all excellent, although I could have done with a little less vibrato from the mezzo. They all showed a commendable grasp of Baroque ornamentation, demonstrating rather more ‘proper’ trills than is usual from solo singers. They coped with singing to a more-or-less empty church well (a few press who, unlike me, managed to align with Tier 4 regulations were able to attend), making good eye contact with the cameras and video audience. Conductor Christian Curnyn kept the performance to an intimate scale, balancing the power of the choruses with the sensitivity of many of the other parts of the unfolding story. Anna Dennis’s He shall feed his flock like a shepherd and the following His yoke is easy at the end of Part the First is a good example. His control of the volume and pace of the final Amen was exemplary.

This is not piece for instrumental fireworks, although mention must go to the continuo players of Catherine Rimer, cello, Kate Brooke, bass, Sally Jackson, bassoon, and Christopher Bucknall, playing harpsichord and a sensibly-sized chamber organ. Recording for film release without a proper audience always leaves the question of what to do at the end. Mercifully I have not come accross any example of fake applause, and the OAE solution of a solomn bow towards the assembled cameras seemed entirely appropriate.

The recording is available on the OAE Player for £7 or as part of an annual pass deal.