MUSIC : The master of us all

The Creation / Royal Opera House Handel's Messiah / Westminster Cathedral

There has been no more touching meeting of great minds than that which occurred in May 1791 at Westminster Abbey between Handel and Haydn. Handel had been dead for more than 30 years, of course, but his mind and spirit were still able to establish an electrifying contact with the other composer through the medium of the great festival of his music being held there.

Haydn was already acquainted with Handel's music through Van Swieten's performances in Vienna, but the living tradition that London offered Haydn on his first English visit, albeit with unauthentic numbers of performers, made an altogether new impact. Friends reported that he was absolutely astonished at Handel's majestic vision, declaring, "He is the master of us all." The dramatic use of counterpoint by a composer for whom it was a living expressive force, rather than an archaic exercise, would obviously have appealed to a master of Haydn's technical expertise, while the brilliant homophonic utterances opened Haydn's mind to a whole new range of choral expression.

Haydn's experience of Handel was to be absolutely crucial to his final creative phase, bearing fruit in the last great masses and oratorios, and this confluence of two creative streams was encapsulated last week in performances of Haydn's The Creation at the Royal Opera House and of Handel's Messiah at Westminster Cathedral, where it opened the celebrations of that building's centenary.

John Eliot Gardiner's interpretation of the Haydn, with his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, was a splendid affair, rising with the utmost intensity and concentration to the work's joys and mysteries. It was a performance, moreover, that had the good fortune to be taking place in an ideal acoustic, clear enough to allow the teeming details in Haydn's orchestral writing to make their expressive point, yet not so dry as to rob the big moments of their jubilant resonance.

The soloists - Sylvia McNair, Michael Shade and Gerald Finley - sang with style and spirit, while the choruses were delivered with a disciplined attack and enthusiasm which became incandescent at key moments like the end of "The heavens are telling". In its picturesque characterisation and profoundly religious impulse, this was a performance that will lodge in the memory.

Messiah was less favoured by the great spaces of Westminster Cathedral. There is a resonance here that blunts a performance's attack, and creates the impression that all sounds are floating effortlessly - a mixture, perhaps, of what the building actually does to sounds and of the way it encourages performers, especially singers, to project.

James O'Donnell, the cathedral's master of music, set lively sensitive tempos, but from where I was sitting, comparatively near the performers (placed sideways-on against the north wall), contrapuntal details in the Westminster Cathedral Choir's textures were blurred, while sections of harmonic grandeur lost much of their edge.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment played with vitality, but were similarly hampered. In fact, solo voices seemed more at home in the acoustic, and Julia Gooding, Felicity Palmer, Richard Edgar-Wilson and Henry Herford all made a fine impression, shaping texts, for instance, with notable clarity.

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