Handel's Messiah: John Nelson conducts

A terrific interpretation of Handel's evergreen masterpiece

Handel's Messiah: John Nelson conducts
Photo © Gregory Massat

Handel Messiah, HWV 56 (1741).  Lucy Crowe (soprano); Alex Potter (counter-tenor); Michael Spyres (tenor); Matthew Brook (bass); Choir of The English Concert; The English Concert / John Nelson. Coventry Cathedral, 24.11.2022. Reviewed from stream at medici.tv

It has been a dream of conductor John Nelson to present Handel’s evergreen Messiah at Coventry Cathedral, the place of the premiere of Britten’s War Requiem. Nelson, in an introduction, states he hopes this Messiah can be a message of hope in a time of multiple conflicts; Nelson also refers to this Messiah as ‘a World Premiere’ of sorts as it incorporates ‘for the first time in history all seven versions Handel wrote during his lifetime’.

With the English Concert on top form in the Overture, this performance immediately promised much. Textures were lightly sprung, dissonances relished, and there was clear rapport – throughout, the orchestra responded to the music’s every shift, most noticeably possibly at the bass' ‘’For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,’ where the orchestra darkened its tone considerably for Matthew Brook’s brilliantly delivered solo (Brook'sfabulous  ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound,’’ much later in Part 3, was just as imposing, with trumpeter Mark Bennett).

The performance had all the rhythmic pointing one associates with the English Concert – ‘Lift up your heads, O ye gates” a case in point. Interesting too, how modern the strings sounded in ‘Thou shalt break them,’ the tenor movement just preceding the famous Hallelujah Chorus. Nelson’s tempi seemed perfect throughout, not least in the tricky penultimate ‘If God be for us, who can be against us’.

But it was the emphasis on the meditative aspects of the Messiah that made Nelson’s interpretation so very profound, the vulnerability of the violins in ‘He was despised’ a massive revelation. Contrasting this were some visceral speeds - ‘He trusted in God that he would deliver him’ found the chorus almost frenzied. The depth of ‘Thy rebuke hath broken his heart,’ a tenor recitative, came not only from the speed but from the careful balancing of the sustained strings. The final ‘Amen’ chorus began as an act of the quietest, most profound worship, enabling the final perorations to truly sound.

Michael Spyres is a regular collaborator with Nelson on disc; and not to forget a memorable Berlioz Les Nuits d’été in Strasbourg. This is the first time I have heard Spyres in Baroque music, and his interpretation of ‘Comfort ye” was magisterial, with superb ornamentation, honeyed tone, even tone (the range is quite large in that piece), and the most tremendous agility in ‘Ev’ry Valley’. It is testament to the artfully chosen soloists that counter-tenor Alex Potter and Spyres work so well together in the part 3 duet ‘O death, where is thy sting?’.

The bass-baritone, Matthew Brook, was another singer who managed Handel’s perilous semiquaver melismas perfectly (the ‘shake’ passages in ‘This saith the Lord of hosts,’ and in ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together?’).

Matthew Brook photo © Gerard Collett

Lucy Crowe, replacing the originally-billed soprano Lisette Oropesa, and who opened the second section of the first part, has a beautiful purity of voice (‘And lo, the angel of the Lord’). How her voice soared, too, in ‘Rejoice greatly’; Crowe’s ornamentation, too, was perfectly judged.

I have not had much exposure to the singing of counter-tenor Alex Potter, but hearing ‘But who shall abide’ on counter-tenor was remarkable. Potter’s sound is pure but strong – and it had to be, with Nelson encouraging the English Concert to provide the most remarkable accents – or, more accurately perhaps, violent shards of sound (something we heard again in 'All they that see him laugh him to scorn’.) This was utterly remarkable rethiinking of ‘But who shall abide’; and how beautifully Potter shaped the second part’s ‘He shall feed his flock’. The orchestral contribution to this latter is worth examining, too, for Nelson takes it at a slow siciiliano speed, allowing for some heaviness in the strigs but never sounding out of place, or the time of composition. Potter was joined by Rory McCleery from the choir for a stunning ‘How beautiful are the feet’.

The detail in Nelson’s performance was nothing short of miraculous: the dots in the famous chorus, ‘For unto us a child is born’, or the cello’s grungy chord spreads at that chorus’s ‘Wonderful, Counsellor’ (just after 24 minutes in the stream; the advantage of the medici.tv stream is that one can award oneself instant encores, of course, which is exactly what happened with that chorus …). And how we heard Handel's dotting to powerful affect in the gritty ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’ in part II.

Nelson is more than experienced in working with choruses, and it showed in his mastery of how he marshalled his forces here, the Choir of the English Concert in splendid form, sopranos coping brilliantly with Handel’s high demands in ‘And the glory of the Lord’ and the whole generating the most remarkable energy in ‘And he shall purify’: rightly so, as this chorus ushers in the announcement of the virgin conception. The sheer power of ’The Lord gave the word’ toward the end of the second part was utterly remarkable. It was good to see the eyes of the choir members transfixed by Nelson’s conducting – no-one nuries their heads in the score.

A terrific interpretation of Handel's evergreen masterpiece. And well done to the medici.tv engineers for maintaining the space of a cathedral acoustic while enabling the detail to come through. A bit of errant camera work at the beginning of the Hellelijah Chorus aside, the production values are excellent.

Nelson’s interpretation of Handel’s Messiah will be released on Warner Classics/Erato in due course. The stream is available until Christmas Eve, 2027 (!) to subscribers of medici.tv