by Karine Hetherington
In early December, the beginning of the Christmas season, I attended a unique performance of Handel’s Messiah in the newly-refurbished Pillar Hall, Olympia. The modest red-brick building of Italianate design hugs the vast exhibition halls of Olympia. With a 250 seating capacity, it is an ideal venue for what was to be an intimate rendering of Handel’s masterpiece.
Ten professional singers step out onto a small raised platform: three basses, two tenors, two altos and three sopranos. They are framed by two marble pillars with the chamber musical ensemble in front, composed mostly of strings, a trumpet and harpsichord player. All the artists look a picture in evening attire.
Down the road, at the Albert Hall, the same work is being performed with full choir, solo artists, conductor and full orchestra. Sheer numbers are of course de rigueur in large concert venues such as the Albert Hall. How else can you vocally fill a vast auditorium of amphitheatre- type proportions?
Back in Olympia meanwhile, the harpsichord player, the heartbeat of the music ensemble, strikes up. The distinct baroque sound transports us back to the 13th April 1742, date when Handel’s Messiah was first performed in the New Music Hall, Dublin. It was an extraordinary night. Dublin ladies had been told to arrive without hoops for their dresses and gentlemen without swords, to create more room. One hundred extra Dubliners were squeezed in to witness Handel’s magnificent Messiah. The small orchestra was borrowed from Dublin castle and a handful of singers plucked from the city’s theatres and cathedrals.
Miles Lallemant, harpsichord player and musical director of the Kensington and Olympia Festival of Music and the Arts, summed up this particular production at the Pillar Hall during my interview with him pre-performance: “This musical and singing ensemble would have been this size in Handel’s day, which makes our performance of the Messiah all the more authentic and exciting to play”.
Tenor Robin Bailey steps forward proudly and intones a robust ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people’, the opening solo. Canadian baritone, Andrew Mahon, follows shortly with his rich and smooth interpretation of ‘Thus saith the Lord’. He mounts and descends the lower registers effortlessly. His blond neighbour, James Geidt, sporting a full Victorian beard has a wonderful bass too but the style is different, his voice is all about vigour. The three sopranos are sweetness incarnate. In such a music space, each soloist comes into sharp relief, their outward appearance, their personality and of course their voice, with its unique timbre and inflexion.
When alto soloist, Laura Lamph comes to sing ‘He was despised,’ her mournful voice reminds us of a young Kathleen Ferrier. Each poignant word is a soft dagger to the heart.
This is where an intimate space really works. A powerful and moving libretto such as this needs to be heard, especially as it is sung in English. A large choir, no matter how professional, cannot deliver that so easily in an echoing auditorium or in a cathedral, where music and words so often disappear up into lofty vaults and crannies.
And so is it a case of less is more in the music world? Not always. Music originated in churches. Not all churches have good acoustics. London, indeed the UK, has a wealth of musical venues to choose from, but the concert each time can only be as good as its artists.
The Amen in Handel’s Messiah ends in a gradual swelling wave of divine loveliness. All ten soloists unite to create a sound of extraordinary beauty and power.
If you close your eyes you can imagine a choir three times the size.