Messiahs come in all shapes and sizes, and did so from the start. The oratorio’s first performers, in Dublin in 1742, doubled as soloists and chorus.
Handel then adapted it in many different ways to suit the circumstances of its revivals, but he settled, when he could, for a chorus of 32. These days it’s sometimes done with a cast of thousands, but there are brave spirits at the opposite end of the spectrum, the newest of whom is Christian Curnyn with his pocket-sized Early Opera Company.
Curnyn’s approach to Handel – beautifully exemplified by the recording he and the EOC released this week of Handel’s early opera ‘Il trionfo del tempo e del Disinganno’, on the Wigmore Live label – is to follow what he regards as the ‘inner pulse’ in all Handel’s music. This is the heartbeat rate, reflecting the fact that, like all Baroque music, Handel’s is based in dance. And if Curnyn’s forces were small, they proved perfectly suited to this acoustic. The four soloists were balanced by a chorus of eight and a 13-piece period-instrument ensemble with Curnyn directing from harpsichord and organ, but the tiny stage still seemed full to bursting.
There was no weak link in the soloists’ line-up, with tenor Nicholas Watts singing the opening aria, ‘Comfort ye’, with searing intensity, and soprano Sarah Tynan standing in for an indisposed Sarah Fox. But in counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and baritone Derek Welton the EOC had trump cards. When Welton thundered ‘I will shake the heavens and the earth’, he did pretty much that: every aria he sang had an easy, unforced majesty.
Davies scooped the pool in this year’s Royal Philharmonic Society awards after a string of brilliant operatic performances, and his voice is now acquiring a clarion quality. Looking like a thoroughly dissolute fallen angel, he sang here like one from heaven; his delivery of ‘He shall feed his flock’, over shuddering strings, was one of the evening’s many magical moments. But others came thick and fast, notably the short a cappella interlude before ‘Since by man came death’, and above all the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, which, egged on by thunder from the timpani, brought the entire hall to its feet. A fabulous evening.