Monday, 6 April 2009

Handel Messsiah with a difference Cambridge

This Handel's Messiah was different because it was relayed live from King's College Chapel in Cambridge, all round the world on sim broadcast.

It was an unusual experience, knowing that at that very moment, thousands of others were listening too. With opera or whatever it's not a big deal but the Messiah was written as shared communion. This communal context is fundamental to its meaning. It will never be quite the same on rebroadcast or DVD.

The performance was excellent as you'd expect from the King's College Chapel Choir, the Academy of Ancient Music and Stephen Cleobury. Soloists were good too - Alice Coote, Ailish Tynan, Matthew Rose and Allan Clayton. Wonderful playing, but what will make this performance a classic was Coote's singing.

Coote's was perhaps the most deeply felt, dramatic "He was despised" I've ever heard. Way out of the normal, polite realm of church singing. "He was despised, ...rejected.....a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief". This was stark, expressive, like Lieder writ large. Suddenly all the centuries of familiarity melted away. Instead we heard Jesus described as an ordinary human being suffering, but with dignity. Even if you get just one track on download this will be the one to get, perhaps Coote's finest moment, and she's had many. It's immortal.

You certainly don't need to be a Christian to appreciate this Messiah. Handel was writing a universal human story, albeit with an unusual plot. "Why do the nations rise so furiously together ?" sings the bass. "Let us break their bond asunder" sing the choir. Earthly power will be dashed to pieces like on a potter's wheel. Then the magnificent Hallelujah, Hallelujah, which has resonated through centuries. The sheer gloriousness of this chorus lifts the spirits, making you feel that there are good things beyond this world.

Nor is Handel all grand gesture. Suddenly the crowd is gone and the lone soprano sings an intimate melody. "I know that my Redeemer liveth". In the vastness of a cathedral, she's tiny, but her faith is strong. Then the bass sings "We shall not sleep, we shall be changed". He's accompanied, not by massed forces but by a primitive baroque trumpet. Like the soprano, it's fragile. Its power lies in the conviction with which it's played. Then the alto and soprano unite. "O Death, where is thy sting ? O Grave, where is thy Victory ?"

This is why Handel's Messiah has become such an icon. Whatever the flavour of their faith, if any, most people ponder what happens when we die. For what do we endure the sufferings of this earth ? Different cultures, different variations, but the mystery remains. Handel is dealing with universal human dilemmas. This music is extraordinarily powerful on its own terms.

So back to the idea of international, simultaneous broadcast. The BBC does it every year with the Proms, but The Messiah is a celebration of something even deeper than music. The usual commercial tie-ins will of course happen, but let's face it, money facilitates things, and even things like King's College need support. Man may not live by bread alone, but without bread, he can't go far. So there's no point being snottily self righteous about the forthcoming CD, DVD and download releases. This performance was so fresh and direct it will be worth listening to again and again, whenever you need a fix of uplift.

I'd stick to the CD. The main downside of this was the filming. King's College Chapel is a marvel, every bit the equivalent in stone of the Messiah. It would have been a wonderful opportunity to show the building in all its glory. Instead the filming was pretty ordinary, superficial panned shots, little detail, the magnificent vaulted ceiling only shown in brief glimpses. This sort of filming would be fine for a normal Sunday TV broadcast, but such was the significance of this performance surely it could have been done with more insight ? King's College is world heritage, why waste it in this way ? Nor was the filming musically adept. Film needs to enhance music, not distract from it. On the other hand, the lack of sophistication behind the Dean's speech was rather endearing. Despite the magnificence around him, he's a normal guy. Which is what it's all about.

More about King's College Chapel, what it does and why it needs support


Chiara said...

Thank you for the review! I watched it from the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge and thoroughly enjoyed it - I agree that Coote's performance was incredible, though I actually thought the filming of the Chapel was very well done - I have certainly never seen it from those angles - and I see it most days, as I am lucky enough to work to support it!

Thanks for posting the link to supporting the Chapel - we've just set up a new "Friendship programme", which I hope you don't mind me posting a link to here - to find out more and Become a Friend of King's College, Chapel and Choir, visit

Doundou Tchil said...

Thank you ! I guess I have too high expectations for filmed music because it's a special thing to me. I hope the release does well -it's a good cause and a good recording.