Though prettily turned and beautifully balanced on her recent Virgin Classics recording, Emmanuelle Ham's account of Bach's Magnificat and Handel's Dixit Dominus was more distinctive and arresting live. Without the comfort blanket of starry soloists Natalie Dessay and Lothar Odinius were both indisposed and Le Concert d'Astre's phenomenal leader, Stphanie-Marie Dgand, Ham was forced to be more than an accompanist with big ideas, more than a facilitator. As one of a small band of female conductors, she can seem awkward, reticent, unwilling to occupy too much space. Away from the harpsichord, her upbeats were hasty, her shoulders uncomfortably high, as though she had forgotten to remove the clothes hanger from her floor-length coat. But the fire and terror that were missing from Dixit on disc blazed in the Barbican.
For all the sinuous beauty of De torrente in via and the limpid cascades of triplets in Tecum principium, this is a startlingly violent psalm. Aged only 22, and recently arrived in Rome, Handel created his own style-book within a matter of months: greedily absorbing Italian influences and fusing them with German techniques, producing figures that he would recycle and develop throughout his career. Yet nothing Handel wrote in the next 50 years would match Juravit Dominus in its twisting dissonances, challenge Dominus a dextris suis in the dark flamboyance of its running bass, or reference as blatantly the composer's Lutheran heritage in his use of cantus firmus.
In Dixit, Le Concert d'Astre's vivacious strings were amplified by a single bassoon, lending extra punch to an impressive bass-line led by cellist Atsushi Sakai. A bright-toned, ideally sized choir of 25 featured a cock-and-hen alto section whose clarion sound would put many a British choir to shame. Though the diminuendo on "in diea suae reges" was arch, Ham's detailing was otherwise strong.
Sopranos Amy Freston and Salom Haller sang with poised sensuality, alto Tim Mead with a rich, beautifully controlled tone, tenor Paul Agnew with vibrancy, and bass Robert Gleadow with authority and dynamism.
A warmer, more relaxed tone was felt in the Magnificat, written by a middle-aged Bach with nothing to prove, though again Ham cleared space for the cantus firmus, allowing Patrick Beaugirard's sweet, severe oboe to dominate the tender trio Suscepit Israel. Minus the chorale interpolations of Bach's earlier E flat major version, but sung in German Latin, it was not, strictly speaking, Advent music. Nonetheless, this performance felt like an early Christmas present.
Performed as part of the London Symphony Orchestra's Belief series under Sir Colin Davis's relaxed but watchful beat, A Child of Our Time revealed its strengths and weaknesses. What an old meanie T S Eliot was, refusing to help with the libretto and establishing a pattern in which Tippett would set his sometimes fluent, sometimes constipated music to his own daffy words. Pah! The spirituals were the strongest numbers, especially those where Indra Thomas's soft, glamorous, capacious soprano soared over the London Symphony Chorus. Preceding the oratorio was Tippett's shimmering Piano Concerto, played rather well by Lang Lang in his bling-bling suit, with delicious counterpoint from the flutes, celesta, and principal viola Edward Vanderspar.Reuse content