Trevor Pinnock, Zürcher Sing-Akademie, Freiburger Barockorchester
G.F. Handel: Oratorio “Messiah”, HWV 56

Victoria Hall, Geneva, 2019-12-13

4-star rating

2019-12-20 — Original posting



Outline


Introduction

About the Concert

In their last concert series in 2019, the Foundation Migros Kulturprozent Classics invited the English harpsichordist, conductor and specialist in historic performances of baroque music, Trevor Pinnock (*1946), the Freiburger Barockorchester, the Zürcher Sing-Akademie (Zurich Singing Academy) and soloists for two concerts with the Oratorio “Messiah” (HWV 56) by George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759).

The first one of these concerts was on 2019-12-12 in the re-opened Casino in Bern, this second one on 2019-12-13 (Friday 13th!) in Geneva’s Victoria Hall. Actually, these concerts were part of a bigger series, starting on 2019-12-09 in the Konzerthaus in Freiburg im Breisgau, a concert on 2019-12-11 at Barbican Hall in London. A final concert is to follow on New Years’s Eve 2019, again in the Konzerthaus in Freiburg im Breisgau.

Setting, etc.

The venue was sold out, my wife and I received seats on the right-hand side first gallery, in the middle of the second row: an acoustically excellent position, though with some (minor) restrictions in the view onto the podium.

Victoria Hall, 2019-12-13 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Victoria Hall, 2019-12-13 (© Rolf Kyburz)

The Artists

Conductor, Orchestra, Choir

Trevor Pinnock (*1946) is frequently cooperating with the Freiburger Barockorchester, one of Europe’s leading baroque orchestras performing on original instruments. The orchestra was founded in 1987, see also Wikipedia (English) or the German Wikipedia (for more detail). The size of the orchestra: 6 + 6 violins, 4 violas, 4 cellos, 1 violone, 2 oboes, 2 natural trumpets, bassoon or dulcian, chest organ, harpsichord, timpani. Trevor Pinnock was standing at the harpsichord, facing the orchestra, typically marking the bass with the left hand, conducting with his right arm. Behind the harpsichord, a chest organ (facing the audience) was supporting the conductor with the basso continuo accompaniment.

The central role in this oratorio is of course the choir—and here I saw familiar faces: I have attended more than half a dozen performances of the Zürcher Sing-Akademie (Zurich Singing Academy). That’s clearly Switzerland’s leading, professional choir—actually (as we shall see) more than that! For this performance the choir was rehearsing with the choral conductor, bass singer and singing teacher Edward Caswell (born in England, now living in Scotland). The choir consisted of 8 singers per voice, seated in two rows behind the orchestra.

Soloists

The initial concert announcement listed Katherine Watson as soprano soloist. Unfortunately, Katherine Watson fell ill, so she could not perform. In her place, Rachel Redmond (born in Glasgow, Scotland, U.K.) stepped in as soprano soloist.

As alto (contralto) soloist, we heard the British singer Claudia Huckle, as former student at the Royal College of Music, the New England Conservatory of Music, and the Curtis Institute of Music.

The male soloists: James Way (born in Sussex, England) sang the tenor part, and the bass was Ashley Riches (British operatic baritone).

With the understandable exception of Rachel Redmond (who stepped in at short notice), the soloists were performing from memory, without a score / sheet music.


Handel’s Oratorio “Messiah”, HWV 56

The program in this concert consisted of one single work: the Oratorio “Messiah” (HWV 56) by George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759). In lieu of a detailed introduction, let me just refer to an earlier review from a concert performance in Lucerne, on 2015-12-19, where I have given a brief description of the composition. For this review, I’m just listing the structure of the oratorio, with the numbering that was also in use in the concert booklet:

Structure

Part the First

  1. Symphony: Grave — Allegro moderato
  2. Accompagnato “Comfort ye”: Larghetto e piano (T)
  3. Air “Every valley”: Andante (T)
  4. Chorus “And the glory of the Lord”: Allegro (Choir)
  5. Accompagnato “Thus saith the Lord” (B)
  6. Air “But who may abide”: Larghetto — Prestissimo (A)
  7. Chorus “And he shall purify”: Allegro (Choir) — Recitative “Behold, a virgin shall conceive” (A)
  8. Air and Chorus “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion”: Andante (A, Choir)
  9. Accompagnato “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth”: Andante larghetto (B)
  10. Air “The people that walked in darkness”: Larghetto (B)
  11. Chorus “For unto us a Child is born”: Andante allegro (Choir)
  12. Pifa: Larghetto e mezzo piano — Recitative “There were shepherds” (S)
  13. Accompagnato “And lo, the angel of the Lord”: Andante (S) — Recitative “And the angel said unto them” (S)
  14. Accompagnato “And suddenly”: Allegro (S)
  15. Chorus “Glory to God”: Allegro (Choir)
  16. Air “Rejoice”: Allegro (S) — Recitative “Then shall the eyes of the blind” (A)
  17. Duet “He shall feed his flock”: Larghetto e piano (A, S)
  18. Chorus “His yoke is easy”: Allegro (Choir)

Part the Second

  1. Chorus “Behold the Lamb of God”: Largo (Choir)
  2. Air “He was despised”: Largo (A)
  3. Chorus “Surely He hath borne”: Largo e staccato (Choir)
  4. Chorus “And with His stripes”: Alla breve, moderato (Choir)
  5. Chorus “All we like sheep”: Allegro moderato (Choir)
  6. Accompagnato “All they that see Him”: Larghetto (T)
  7. Chorus “He trusted in God”: Allegro (Choir)
  8. Accompagnato “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart”: Largo (T)
  9. Arioso “Behold and see”: Largo e piano (T)
  10. Accompagnato “He was cut off” (T)
  11. Air “But Thou didst not leave”: Andante larghetto (T)
  12. Chorus “Lift up your heads”: A tempo ordinario (Choir) — Recitative “Unto which of the angels” (T)
  13. Chorus “Let all the angels of God”: Allegro (Choir)
  14. Air “Thou art gone up on high”: Larghetto (A)
  15. Chorus “The Lord gave the word”: Andante allegro (Choir)
  16. Air “How beautiful”: Larghetto (S)
  17. Chorus “Their sound is gone out”: A tempo ordinario (Choir)
  18. Air “Why do the nations”: Allegro (B)
  19. Chorus “Let us break their bonds”: Allegro e staccato (Choir) — Recitative “He that dwelleth” (T)
  20. Air “Thou shalt break them”: Andante (T)
  21. Chorus “Hallelujah”: Allegro (Choir)

The numbers 34 and 35 above are alternatives (selected in this concert) for the following, original numbers:

  1. Duet and Chorus “How beautiful”: Andante (A I, A II, Choir)
  2. Arioso “Their sound is gone out”: Andante larghetto (T)

The reason for selecting the alternative option is obvious: the original version requires two alto singers.

Part the Third

  1. Air “I know that my Redeemer liveth”: Larghetto (S)
  2. Chorus “Since by man came death”: Grave — Allegro (Choir)
  3. Accompagnato “Behold, I tell you a mystery” (B)
  4. Air “The trumpet shall sound”: Pomposo, ma non allegro (B) — Recitative “Then shall be brought” (A)
  5. Duet “O death, where is thy sting”: Andante (A, T)
  6. Chorus “But thanks be to God”: Andante (Choir)
  7. Air “If God be for us”: Larghetto (S)
  8. Chorus “Worthy is the Lamb”: Largo — “Amen”: Allegro moderato (Choir)

The Performance

Rather than covering the performance in strict sequence, I decided to first write about the orchestra, followed by the most central part / component, the choir. Finally, I discuss the performance of the soloists in the order of their appearance. I don’t write about every single chorus or aria.

Trevor Pinnock, Freiburger Barockorchester

There are only two purely orchestral numbers in this oratorio. The initial “Symphony” (1) is a French overture with a slow, heavily punctuated, stepping introduction and a longer fugated part (Allegro moderato). The Pifa (12) is a very short, intimate Pastorale in the center of the first part. These short segments were enough to demonstrate the qualities of one of the very top, truly historically informed orchestras in Europe, in a well-equilibrated performance: the specific, character- and colorful sound of the gut strings (warm, never too poignant, even when empty strings were played), the gentle and light articulation (the period bows were very helpful in this!). Then, there was the excellent balance between strings and woodwinds: despite the moderate string body, the two baroque oboes never dominated the sound, but mixed with the strings, merely added colors.

Trevor Pinnock avoided harsh articulation and exceedingly poignant staccato, and he also was moderate in the dynamics: in this large venue, the orchestral sound remained transparent at all times: lively / “living”, never too polished, but devoid of coordination issues. Throughout the concert, Trevor Pinnock could count on the active support by the concertmaster, Anne-Katharina Schreiber.

Actually, it took me a while to adapt to the acoustics: initially, I felt that a slightly larger orchestra might have been more adequate. It wasn’t just with the orchestra, but also with the solo singers, and even the choir initially seemed to lack the expected volume and power. Were they holding back initially, in order to let the highlights in the second and third parts stand out more? Luckily, these impressions vanished after a while.
★★★★½

Choir: Zürcher Sing-Akademie

I did not expect anything less than that: throughout the oratorio, the choir presented a top-notch, absolutely professional performance, clear and understandable, perfect in diction and pronunciation (the rehearsals with Edward Caswell obviously paid off!), equally impeccable in balance, transparency, homogeneity and articulation, excellent in dynamic control. Sure, there are other choirs in the same league, but is there any better choir in Europe?

4, “And the glory of the Lord”

In line with what I stated above about the orchestra: it took me a while to get used to the acoustic. Concrete: here, I felt that the hall could easily have taken more volume. Did the choir maybe save forces for parts 2 and 3?
★★★★½

7, “And he shall purify” / 8, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion”

Slick, fast, effortless and natural in the coloraturas, light. One quibble: in a video trailer, Edward Caswell referred to the Zürcher Sing-Akademie as a “choir that can master literally anything”—and indeed, the performance was fascinating and as close to perfection as it could possibly get.

Here and in several later instances, though, I think that the choir didn’t always “speak to the listener’s heart” as much as it could have. At first, I thought that this is me trying to get used to the acoustics—but the impression returned also in pieces towards the end of the oratorio. Was it too perfect? More for a CD/recording than for a live performance? Did the choir’s expression (in parts) get lost in the size of the venue? Or did the score in every singer’s hands form a visual / physical or emotional barrier towards the audience? Did I simply expect too much?
★★★★ / ★★★★½

11, “For unto us a Child is born”

Also here: elegant, light, perfect and clear in articulation, dynamics and phrasing, lucid and bright in soprano and tenors (“and the government shall..”). Here, in the “Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God”, the choir seemed to achieve the expected volume and power. In contrast, I felt that the orchestra was maybe a little too gentle & mellow in the articulation.
★★★★

15, “Glory to God”

Effortless and with plenty of reserves, from the highest notes in soprano and tenor, down to the low bass and alto notes! And the orchestral ending was absolutely enchanting, as if subtly faded away into ppp and below!
★★★★½

18, “His yoke is easy”

Here’s another example of perfect choral performance, despite a fast, challenging tempo: artful, perfect in diction, dynamics, balance, very light—but overall a tad fast and technical… see above. To me, the closing ritardando was too broad—and I didn’t quite understand why this was combined with a diminuendo. At least, the text “His yoke is easy, His burden is light” doesn’t seem to imply a retracting closure?
★★★★

19, “Behold the Lamb of God”

The orchestra felt gentle and mellow in articulation, with the punctuations relatively broad (almost approaching triplets), certainly not overdramatizing. Trevor Pinnock kept the instruments as accompaniment, leaving the lead role to the choir. Interestingly, the latter seemed to use sharper (more accurate) punctuations. Excellent phrasing, perfect dynamics: gentle arches over the very long notes!
★★★★½

21, “Surely He hath borne” — 22, “And with His stripes”

Striking, determined, perfect voicing, excellent balance between choir and orchestra. Was it just my impression that compared to the first part the choir had grown in volume and power?
★★★★½ / ★★★★

23, “All we like sheep”

No, my personal highlight was not “He was despised”, but this choir!! To me, this wasn’t just enthralling full of drive, but the execution was simply perfect: light, clear coloraturas, so careful and detailed in the dynamics, throughout. Here everything was simply “right”, up to an including the perfect control in wide-spanning dynamics of the Adagio closure: congrats and thanks!!!
★★★★★

25, “He trusted in God” … 35, “Their sound is gone out”

Expressive, clear and virtuosic in coloraturas. Again excellent in dynamic control: the choir seemed to have gained volume and power (33), definitely left a stronger impression here, compared to part 1 (however, that’s also in Handel’s composition, of course).
★★★★½

37, “Let us break their bonds”

A very challenging tempo—maybe at the limit, but still mastered extremely well: dramatic, clear in the execution of the semiquavers—the ultimate virtuosity in choir singing!
★★★★½

39, “Hallelujah”

What can I say? The execution was perfect, the tempo fluent (far from the pompous interpretations from 50, 60 years ago!), the orchestra excellent, with the extra splendor from the natural trumpets and the timpani (played with wooden sticks), I can’t blame any technical faults. And yet, the performance didn’t really enthuse the audience—was it too perfect, or too technical? Sure, there was applause, but I didn’t see people jump up to their feet, neither as the piece started, nor with the applause…
★★★★

41, “Since by man came death”

Grave: Excellent, highest level a cappella singing, without vibrato, homogeneous, absolutely linear, and perfect in the intonation: choral sound culture in purest form!
★★★★½

47, “Worthy is the Lamb” — “Amen”

The last choral number, with a stately, festive first part, followed by a fugue: technically again impeccable, with excellent dynamic control and phrasing even at the end of a long and strenuous performance. And that endurance, the ability to shape long phrases, to keep the internal balance in a polyphonic texture persisted through the final “Amen” fugue. A last quibble: the final ritardando to the closing Adagio felt a little too broad, too pompous, the timpani beats almost bombastic: somewhat overdone. Oh well … I would not let that diminish the pleasure that I had in this long performance!
★★★★½

Soloists

A general remark on the soloists: in a video trailer (I think), Trevor Pinnock stated that he chose operatic singers “because Handel liked opera singers”. In this performance, this really seemed to suit the music. One obvious benefit of that choice was that the soloists were performing by heart: they are used to this from opera singing, and it certainly allowed for a much more direct communication with the audience.

All soloists added extra ornaments and little cadenzas, as appropriate—all very natural and well-adapted to Handel’s music: people not very familiar with the oratorio may not have noted, and to “Messiah experts”, they felt refreshing and perfectly adequate.

James Way, Tenor

Not a huge, but a really beautiful voice: bright, projecting well (sufficient “ping”)!

2, “Comfort ye” / 3, “Every valley”

Already in the first vocal phrase in the oratorio, James Way presented an excellent messa di voce, and a natural, harmonious vibrato. Both in “Comfort ye” (2) and “Every valley” (3) he demonstrated careful and differentiated dynamics. In the accompagnato, he added some “operatic” ornaments, and (3) even featured a nice cadenza in bars 74/75. Naturally, diction and pronunciation were excellent; my only / main quibble is that closed vowels (“i”, “e”) felt maybe a little too closed / bright / poignant.
★★★★

24, “All they that see Him”

Excellent not only in the sharp and clear punctuations in the violins, but also in the dramatic solo—James Way’s dramatic tenor was the ideal match for this accompagnato!
★★★★½

26, “Thy rebuke” … 29, “But Thou didst not leave”,

I found James Way’s bright, radiant voice to be particularly suited for the expressive, dramatic passages in recitatives, accompagnati, and arias.
★★★★ — ★★★★½

38, “Thou shalt break them”

See above: excellent in the dramatic character! Only occasionally, one could sense that (understandably) the singer’s voice started to suffer from the strain of the many recitatives and arias: the voicing of some high peak notes was marginal. Not a major issue, though.
★★★½

Claudia Huckle, Alto

In line with what I stated above, Trevor Pinnock preferred an alto over a countertenor. This reflects the fact that castrati appeared mostly in Italy / Southern Europe (where Handel certainly also liked their qualities etc.). More importantly, I think, today’s countertenors (definitely not the same as a castrato!) are typically rather lyrical, not dramatic voices.

6, “But who may abide” / 8, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion”

Excellent volume, and a warm timbre, clarity also in the low register. In the Prestissimo segments, Pinnock left the dramatic character mostly in the solo part—and an operatic voice was of course excellent here! He didn’t overdramatize the orchestral accompaniment, rather keeping the rapid tremolo at mf level or below. This way there was no danger of obscuring the solo part.
★★★★

17, Duet (S/T) “He shall feed his flock”

So intimate, beautiful, atmospheric! The orchestra remained sotto voce, made the piece feel like chamber music, and Trevor Pinnock created a perfect accompaniment, leaving the singers the necessary freedom to shape their parts.
★★★★½

20, “He was despised”

Clearly one of Handel’s most beautiful inventions in this oratorio and beyond—for many even the emotional highlight. Claudia Huckle did not sing with power, but with intensity, and with excellent diction. Handel’s score is challenging, maybe counted on a lower voice: in the bottom notes, the alto did reach her limit, where the sonority started to drop. However, that did not affect the overall outcome. In the Da capo instance, the alto added extra ornaments. These were perfectly OK in style—but still one of the few cases in this oratorio where I felt that less might have been more: to me, the text does not seem to call for that much embellishment (except for moments when the ornaments illustrates weeping and grief, maybe).

Even though Claudia Huckle is an opera singer, strangely, I felt that the middle part could have been more dramatic / expressive.
★★★★½ / ★★★★

Ashley Riches, Baritone

Good volume, dramatic in character, and clearly a baritone, not a bass. This benefitted the dramatic character of many recitatives (such as already No.5), but of course can’t compete with a true bass in the low register.

9, “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth” — 10, “The people that walked in darkness”

An intimate interpretation: maybe a bit too intimate, losing effect in the size of the venue? At least, I felt that the latter part (“and His glory shall be seen upon thee”) deserved a bit more presence, volume and power?

In the aria (No.10), the soloist chose the lower alternative (bar 8). His singing was very expressive, didn’t have trouble covering the bass range. There were lots of subtleties in his singing, and I liked his sotto voce. My main quibble: where the text talks about “light”, the character of his voice was certainly excellent, however, for the “darkness” parts, I would have preferred a true, darker bass voice.
★★★½

36, “Why do the nations”

An ideal piece for Ashley Riches’ dramatic voice: furor, exclamations, rebellion—and excellent, equally dramatic orchestral accompaniment!
★★★★½

43, “The trumpet shall sound”

Another, long solo highlight: expressive, excellent volume, dynamic control. At least as important: I really liked the sound of the natural trumpet—so much better that the bright, shrill clarin trumpets that are often used with modern instrumentation! This wasn’t a trumpet concerto with a bass solo, but a proper bass aria with an illustrative trumpet solo.
★★★★½

Rachel Redmond, Soprano

I can’t be too critical about Rachel Redmond, as she was a short term substitute. I certainly can’t blame her for keeping the score in her hands—however, that seems to have been a mere precautionary measure, as she was actually consulting the book very rarely only.

Rachel Redmond exhibited a very nice, warm and well-balanced voice, devoid of edges, clear, good volume (especially in the upper range) and projection.

16, “Rejoice”

Here, Trevor Pinnock’s instrumental tempo pushed the soprano to the limit, where coloratures started to sound blurred, and the piece occasionally felt somewhat pushed.
★★★½

17, Duet (S/T) “He shall feed his flock”

Even though the soprano timbre was entirely different, the two voices complemented each other (in their sequential segments) so well—serene, peaceful, touching!
★★★★½

40, “I know that my Redeemer liveth”

Another highlight—not a virtuosic piece, but one with a soothing, reassuring message. Here now, the character of Rachel Redmond’s voice appeared a little too dramatic, as the vibrato sometimes seemed to affect the intensity of the cantilena. Then, in this well-known music, I also noted the effect of the singer expecting a baby: the aria requires a long breath, and here the soprano needed to split some of the long phrases.
★★★½

46, “If God be for us”

To me, this was Rachel Redmond’s most convincing, coherent performance in this oratorio (even though here, I personally would have preferred a slightly more lyrical voice): no signs of fatigue, excellent dynamic control / phrasing, no excess in vibrato.
★★★★


Conclusions

Ahead of the concert, Edward Caswell (coaching the Zürcher Sing-Akademie on their 2019 tour with Handel’s “Messiah”) referred to the choir as an ensemble with unlimited potential / possibilities, able to perform anything. And he was right: in this concert, the 4 x 8 professional singers in the choir proved to be among the top world class ensembles in terms of voice and dynamic control, homogeneity, volume virtuosity, agility, and vocal balance. The Freiburger Barockorchester under the direction of Trevor Pinnock proved an ideal and absolutely reliable foundation and accompaniment for choir and soloists, with warm, never rough “period sound”.

As soloists, Trevor Pinnock selected opera singers (“because Handel loved opera voices”). The four singers Rachel Redmond (short-term replacement for Katherine Watson), Claudia Huckle, James Way, and Ashley Riches proved largely ideal for this oratorio. Clear voices, adequately (but not excessively) dramatic, and naturally excellent at diction and pronunciation.

Handel’s composition is full of highlights., On the part of the soloists, the arias “He was despised” (alto), as well as “Why do the nations” and “The trumpet shall sound” (baritone). With the choir, just about every number turned into a highlight on its own. However, I can’t resist pointing out “All we like sheep“: this was enthralling in its technical perfection, agility, precision, and dynamics. I should mention, though, that the virtually unlimited vocal and virtuosic potential of the choir occasionally led the conductor towards a rather fast tempo. And in comparison to the soloists, who sang entirely from memory, the choir didn’t succeed equally well to reach out to people’s hearts, to convince and touch the audience.



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2 thoughts on “Pinnock, Zürcher Sing-Akademie, Freiburger Barockorchester — Geneva, 2019-12-13”

  1. Sounds wonderful, Rolf. I can appreciate what you say about the hall requiring more musical volume, but I would rather see the hall shrunk than the ensemble enlarged. The only time I’ve heard the “real Beethoven” was a performance by an orchestra of 38. Just as the use of a solo period instrument (e.g. Brautigam’s piano sonatas) can open up a composer’s work like a key in a lock (I had no use for the sonatas till I heard Brautigam), an ensemble performance of historical size can do the same (plus the added touch of using operatic performers, knowing Haendel’s preference for them — thanks for that comment). I have Beecham’s Messiah, which I like very much, but that’s because Beecham was a bloody genius.

    Reply
    • Hi Tom, I don’t think I have *any* Beecham recording (sadly, but I only have this one life…), but for the Messiah I have Paul McCreesh, Gabrieli Consort & Players (Dorothea Löschmann, Susan Gritton, Bernarda Fink, Charles Daniels, Neal Davies) — which I bought after having attended a performance with McCreesh at the KKL in Lucerne (also a big hall, but very likely far better acoustics). That staffing is actually not the one I heard in Lucerne. A second recording in my collection is with Stephen Layton, Britten Sinfonia, Polyphony (Julia Doyle, Iestyn Davies, Allan Clayton, Andrew Foster-Williams). Iestyn Davies is a wonderful countertenor — he was singing with McCreesh in Lucerne, and Polyphony is a choir in the same league as the Sing-Akademie. I doubt that I will find the time to do a comparison of these two recordings, let alone any additional ones…
      I quickly checked my LP database (can’t play them, maybe never will again, ever) — and found that I have six additional recordings on vinyl: Koopman (pre-1985), Harnoncourt (pre-1983), Hogwood (pre-1983), Gardiner (pre-1986), Colin Davis (pre-1978), and Karl Richter (pre-1971). The “pre-…” simple has the year in which I purchased the LP. I actually doubt that any of these can still be called “current”. Definitely, the Richter LP is horrible (German, of course). Going from that to Colin Davis in the late ’70s was like turning on the light in total darkness. And by now, also Colin Davis very likely is totally / equally outdated…

      Reply

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