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Messiah \ Handel \ Academy of Ancient Music \ Egarr

December 20, 2009

A few days before I finished work for the Christmas holidays I made the tactical error of getting lunch from the canteen. Liver and onion was on the menu. I like liver and onion. I don’t have it often, but when I do it’s usually a special thing. A treat.

This particular serving of liver and onion was more of a trial. It was tough. The onions had clearly been braised in the low-effort gravy they swum around in and entire “meal” comprising mashed potato, liver, onion and some red cabbage was served up in a polystyrene container with a considerable lack of love. It also set me back an astonishing £4.50. I felt deflated as I repeatedly masticated on each bite.

Liver isn’t always like that. Done well – like the calves liver I had with Significant Other at the Skylon Restaurant on Wednesday – it can be an exquisite affair. Rare pan-fried liver should melt in the mouth. It should make you look around frantically for someone to share the joy with. It is something to behold. Memories are made of experiences like this.

If however your first experience of liver is like the one from our canteen – which I’m reminded is not entirely dissimilar to the way school caterers used to serve it up – you’re almost certainly never going to understand what all the fuss is about.

I was thinking about good, reasonably-priced, pan-friend liver mid-way through Part 3 of the Academy of Ancient Music‘s breathtaking of Handel’s Messiah at Cadogan Hall last night.

Painfully aware of my already documented feelings about Handel’s oratorio and the humiliation I now risk experiencing, I have to report a number of reasons as to why the AAM’s performance was breathtaking:

Reason Number One
This particular performance had seen me gripped from the start. The band and chorus (yes, it was a baroque band playing on authentic instruments) were small but perfectly formed, delivering an impressive dynamic range . Shut your eyes and there could have been 25 fiddle players on stage. There were in fact only 9.

Reason Number Two
Jolly looking conductor Richard Egarr breathed drama into the rendition evident in the painstaking detail he paid to the ends of phrases, slowing bits down and including moments where the audience could catch up a bit in the music. I’d expected Handel’s music to be one speed at the beginning and the same speed until the end. But by including nuances, Egarr managed to make the whole work exist as a living thing.

Reason Number Three
The soloists were all really good. No really, they were. It’s fair to say I did leave Cadogan Hall still feeling unsure about counter-tenors in general. I know Michael Chance has got a CBE and so must be very good (and is almost certainly a nice chap) but seeing his large frame on stage and then hearing that etheral, slightly creepy counter-tenor voice emerge from his sound frightened just a bit. Elizabeth Watts is big on drama and brought “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” alive. Not only did bass Christopher Purves sport the best outfit with a smashing waistcoat, cut quite a handsome look (if you’re in to that kind of thing) and have a gorgeous voice, but he also displayed a good sense of humour. Always good at these kind of events.

Reason Number Four
I followed all the words in the programme notes as I went along. I understood what was going on. I was engaged in the work without having to sing or play. This wasn’t a passive experience like listening on the radio. And because of that I quickly realised that for Christianity newbies Handel’s Messiah really is a guided tour around the New Testament basics. And for those who get the basics but whose attendance is poor, the work also provides the salient points of Christ’s story. If you miss it at Christmas, you can always get a repeat during Easter. Very convenient.

Reason Number Five
Cadogan Hall really is the best venue for a performance of this size. It’s big enough (and has the most elegantly stylish interior) to feel like an event and small enough for all – even the audience – to feel involved. The seats are comfy (I didn’t move for 3 hours) and it’s warm. Very important.

Eight months after I put it to Radio 3 Controller Roger Wright Handel was “a bit boring” and a few days before the BBC and ENO’s big Messiah shindig, I am prepared to concede that maybe Handel isn’t quite as boring as I first thought.

But .. and it’s a big but … like melt in the mouth pan-fried liver, if you’re going to listen to the Messiah be sure you attend an authentic performance given by an expert band and an award-winning choir first. Don’t listen to it on a CD or the radio.

For God’s sake don’t let a symphony orchestra playing on modern instruments go anywhere near it. Otherwise you might as well forget Handel’s Messiah and get accustomed to eating overcooked offal from the canteen in exchange for an exorbitant amount of money.

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