In all music, there are few pieces as uplifting as Messiah (1741). Written within an intense three-week late-summer creative period by George Frideric Handel, Messiah is also one of the most iconic pieces of the baroque era, with lasting popularity.
Yet, the success of Messiah was not an immediate one. Though well-loved by the Dublin audiences upon its 1742 premiere and a follow-up second performance, first audiences in London were more reserved with their enthusiasm.
However, performance by performance, Messiah became more popular. Handel kept revising the score on several occasions over the twelve years following its initial completion, resulting in several alternative numbers in the score.
While one can argue that there are more impressive pieces in the Handel oeuvre, there is something unique about Messiah. Instantly communicative and life-affirming, it is a piece that has a profound effect upon its listener, believer or nonbeliever.
Scored for moderate vocal and instrumental forces, it is also a tour-friendly piece, frequently featured in the programmes of many world-class period ensembles, such as The English Concert.
At this year’s Helsinki Festival, the wonderful London-based ensemble, founded in 1973, provided the audiences of a packed Helsinki Music Centre with a dazzling performance of the Handel classic.
With forty people onstage, The English Concert and Choir, directed from the harpsichord by Harry Bicket, brought the score to life with uplifting virtuosity and spiritedness.
Compiled from Biblical sources, Charles Jennens’ libretto is based on a three-part structure, reflecting the messianic prophesies of the Old Testament, followed by a narrative depicting the birth, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, and concluding with a meditation of the last judgment and the world to come.
Though conceived as an oratorio, the music is firmly rooted in opera. With recitatives, arias and choruses, Messiah is an abstract drama with compelling power.
In the First Part, one was immediately drawn into the lively performance. With Bicket, the orchestra and the choir, as well as the four marvellous soloists, Julia Doyle, Stephanie Wake-Edwards, Hugo Hymas and Roland Wood tackled Handel’s writing with vigor and drama, to an uplifting effect.
From the ever so beautiful accounts of Comfort ye and Ev’ry valley by Hymas to the most compelling Thus saith the Lord by Wood, the uttering of the prophecies provided an impressive opening for the evening.
Followed by the most charming performance of O thou tellest good tidings to Zion by Wake-Edwards and the choir, one was simply carried into the realm of sonic bliss.
One of the highlights of Messiah is the standout Annunciation to the shepherds scene. With two trumpets high above the stage, the performance by Doyle, the orchestra and the choir was formidably operatic, true to the spirit of Handel.
With a joyous of account of His yoke is easy, the orchestra and the choir brought the first part to a rousing conclusion.
In the Second Part, the events of Eastertide and Pentecost were given a splendid sonic guise. The orchestra’s shattering description of Christ’s torment and suffering was deeply moving, even upsetting.
In contrast, the catharsis provided by Thou shalt break them and Hallelujah, gorgeously performed by Hymas and the whole ensemble, with timpani and trumpets added, was pure joy.
The evening concluded with a serene account of the Third Part. Among the many highlights were the most brilliant take on The trumpet shall sound by Wood and the orchestra as well as a spellbinding performance of the concluding Amen fugue.
While the large hall of the Helsinki Music Centre may not be ideally suited for all baroque performances, the atmosphere of Thursday evening was very intimate and warm. Acoustically, the experience was most enjoyable, with the hall serving well the agile and transparent ensembles of The English Concert and Choir.
An evening of profound happiness, it was a joy and privilege to share this Messiah with its outstanding performers.
George Frideric Handel: Messiah, HWV 56 (1741)
The English Concert and Choir
Harry Bicket, conductor
Julia Doyle, soprano
Stephanie Wake-Edwards, alto
Hugo Hymas, tenor
Roland Wood, bass
Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland
Thursday 29 August 2019, 7 pm
© Jari Kallio