A bit of give and take MUSIC

Handel's Messiah Royal Albert Hall / South Bank, London
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The Independent Culture
Even without the aid of interactive media there are at least three ways to enjoy Handel's Messiah: authentically; in the Victorian style; or as "Messiah from scratch". Such a variety reflects its uniquely communal nature. Scholars may try pinning it down to a single, definitive text, but singers and audiences stubbornly persist in wanting to hear it done en masse. As two Bank Holiday performances in London showed - the Royal Choral Society and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Albert Hall on Friday afternoon, and the London Choral Society with the Hanover Band at the Festival Hall that evening - the outcome is usually a happy compromise. Of no other work can it so truly be said that the letter killeth, the spirit giveth life.

The credit, of course, is Handel's, not only for a cast-iron dramatic scheme but also for the infinite adaptability of his music. The period- instrument Hanover Band, matching the strength of its forces to those of the work's 1742 Dublin premiere, gave a brisk account of the Overture on Friday evening, missing the opening repeat to plunge straight into the fugal allegro. In contrast, the RPO had taken a more relaxed view earlier that day, full of swagger and ceremony the first time round, with the aid of the Albert Hall organ, then repeating the slow prelude on hushed strings alone. Hugely inauthentic, the effect had the poetic tension and intimacy of whispered prayer.

Later distinctions of style proved equally atmospheric. The buzz of the Hanover Band's gut strings and harpsichord, furiously raging together under Jane Glover's baton, were the perfect aural complement to the stabbing, incisive chords of "He gave his back to the smiters", and to Peter Snipp's frenetic yet finely articulated bass aria "Why do the nations". But for effects of dynamic subtlety - the quality of full orchestra in pianissimo - the RPO under Owain Arwel Hughes was unbeatable. In the "Glory to God" chorus, for example, quiet string-tone emerged magically from behind the cries of "peace on earth" to move the music forward with a swelling current of pulsating background chords.

Slightly smaller than the Royal Choral Society, though apparently still clocking in at over 90 singers, the London Choral Society gave humour to "All we like sheep", and purposeful direction to the choral dirge "Behold the Lamb of God". For their colleagues in the Albert Hall, the Messiah set-pieces naturally formed the high points of delight. But even despite the acoustic, clarity of detail was not lacking in such tricky numbers as "For unto us a child is born".

Thomas Randle passionately meant every word of his opening tenor solo, "Comfort ye", filling the afternoon air with his mellifluous noise. Later, Barry Banks brought calm majesty to the same song. While the alto soloists in both performances seemed less suited to their roles, soprano Susan Gritton, with the Hanover Band, made the long phrases of "I know that my redeemer liveth" into a perfectly formed essay in Handelian serenity.

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