Standing on tradition
Do audiences outside Britain stand for the "Hallelujah” chorus in Handel's Messiah? I assume not, as the tradition is said to originate from our King George II once standing for this number, possibly to alleviate his gout. The Britten Sinfonia and Polyphony are very models of modern performing ensembles. At last night's Norwich Messiah there was not a tuxedo in sight. But still conductor Stephen Layton gestured expansively for the audience to stand for the words 'Hallelujah, for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth'. Isn't classical music strange?
Stephen Layton's used his own edition of the Messiah for the performance. So he missed an opportunity to end the royalist tradition with a pithy annotation in the score. It was a cracking performance from the Britten Sinfonia, Polyphony and four outstanding young soloists. Hearing the Messiah played by a top-of-their-game chamber orchestra on modern instruments in the acoustics of a concert hall underlined just how great Handel's string writing is. For further evidence look no further than the composer's somewhat neglected Concerti Grossi, op. 3. I'll give period instruments the nod on this one and recommend Tafelmusik's recording directed by Jeanne Lamon.
There was certainly nothing traditional about the sound we heard last night. The venue for this Messiah, Norwich's Theatre Royal, has just had the French CARMEN® digital sound enhancement system installed to enhance its dry acoustics. The results, judging by last night's concert and the recent Glyndebourne Hänsel und Gretel, are certainly very impressive. More on this subject in my 2006 article Digital technology builds a virtual concert hall.
Last night's forces are recording the Messiah for release in autumn 2009 as part of the celebrations to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer's death. The two CDs will be released on the Britten Sinfonia's new record label which is a joint venture with innovative independent Signum Classics. There have recently been outstanding new recordings of the Messiah from The Sixteen and Dunedin Consort. (I have to point out that the Dunedin recording on the Linn Records label, which dates from 2006, is also available on vinyl LP). On last night's showing the Britten Sinfonia and Polyphony version should be up there with the best.
Stephen Layton is not usually one to stand on tradition.
The Britten Sinfonia/Polyphony Messiah can also be heard in Ely Cathedral on Dec 18, and St John's, Smith Square on Dec 21, 22 and 23. My ticket for last night's performance was provided free by the Britten Sinfonia as sole payment for chairing the pre-concert talk with three of the soloists. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk