Like dogs, Messiahs are for life, not just for Christmas. But they come into their own around December 25. And easily the best I heard over the holidays was given by Polyphony as part of the St John’s, Smith Square season of all things choral.
On the circuit now for 30 years, Polyphony ranks in the forefront of the best professional choirs in Britain, largely drawn from former Oxbridge choral scholars, and outstanding for its combination of assertive power with keenly shaped and sculpted eloquence. The discipline is absolute: you never hear wrong entries or uncertain intonation. But the sound is warm, the sentiments are real – the polar opposite of an ensemble like the BBC Singers who produce a clinical perfection good for radio but sterile when you hear them in the flesh.
Polyphony’s perfection isn’t sterile: Stephen Layton, its conductor, guards against that. And of all the shining qualities of this Messiah – soloists such as Iestyn Davies (who acquired an MBE in last week’s honours), vigorous playing from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and a grand sense of occasion that held everything together – what I took away most forcefully was Layton’s way of making music that we’ve heard countless times before sound vital, fresh and (even more important) meaningful.
It’s a familiar cliché that, for many listeners, Messiah works like liturgy and is the nearest thing they get to church. But few performances in actuality deliver serious spiritual charge: a certain stiff-backed piety perhaps, but not the sense of Handel having found an ideal musical expression for life-changing truths.
Polyphony’s Messiah did exactly that. No Classic FM comfort zone of cosy tunes, it was dynamic and exhilarating: saturated with conviction of the greatness of this music and its message. When we stood for the “Hallelujah Chorus” – something I usually do begrudgingly – it would have taken ropes to keep me in my seat. Given some space (Smith Square was packed), I could have danced.
Another thing that had me dancing, metaphorically, with pleasure over Christmas was a concert by the baritone Roderick Williams, given at Middle Temple Hall as part of a series organised by the accompanist Julius Drake. Billed as an English Winterreise, it wasn’t the Schubert song-cycle in translation that you might have expected, but a sequence of English songs devised to mirror the structure of Schubert’s, and functioning on similar terms, as a journey through a winter’s landscape into darkness and despair. A smart idea and stunningly delivered, it was Williams at his best. His currency as both a singer and composer has been riding high of late, and deservedly so.
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