Messiah / Polyphony, St John's, Smith Square, London

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The Independent Culture

Bringing a headful of cantatas to Handel's Messiah, thanks to Radio 3's Bach Week, one finds oneself making comparisons between these composers' musical worlds, and speculating as to why they're so different. Bach and Handel were born in the same year, and both enjoyed triumphant lives, but there the similarities end. Bach was dunked in the extremities of human experience, watching a wife and many of his children die before him. Even his job in Leipzig had its macabre side: when a condemned man was sent for execution, Bach and his choirboys accompanied him with hymns to the scaffold. Handel, who had no known sex-life, held court and consumed countless epic dinners at his comfortable Mayfair abode.

It may not be too facile to relate these realities to the fact that, whereas Bach's musical protagonists sing out the passion of their souls, the emotions in Handel are decorously perceived. And though the purpose of Messiah was to shore up religious fundamentalism, its lyricism, fury and imperialistic sound-painting is often as operatic as any Handel opera.

Stephen Layton's Polyphony consists of just 27 voices, but as the tenor James Gilchrist launched into the accompanied recitative "Comfort ye", shaping his phrases with consummate grace, the sound filled this church. Layton's tempi were so brisk that the first few sections zipped along, with the choral coloraturas immaculately controlled. But when we got to "For behold, darkness shall cover the earth", it became apparent that Layton's quest for perfection could not accommodate the earth-shaking tenebrousness required, even if the bass James Rutherford did his best to make up for it.

The same held true in the intensely dramatic alto aria "He was despised and rejected", where the orchestra should whip up a sudden storm: Layton's instrumentalists settled for a mere quickening of the breeze.

Emma Kirkby was indisposed, but we got more than adequate compensation in the soprano Carolyn Sampson; her voice is a rainbow of colours, and she brought her operatic skills to bear. Rising to every occasion, investing every coloratura run with a lovely sense of line, this singer lit up the night.

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