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St David's Hall, Cardiff
Wednesday December 8, 2004
Handel's Messiah is sometimes in danger of seeming like a cliche in the musical calendar but, in this finely judged performance at Cardiff's St David's Hall, there was not a boring or predictable moment. And that's more than can be said for the proceedings at the Millennium Centre the previous weekend.
The joint forces of the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir and the Swansea Bach Choir embraced more than Christmas good will. As the names imply, both tend towards the earlier repertoire but it was the fact that they share the same director, John Hugh Thomas, that ensured such a degree of tonal and stylistic integrity. The sound was bright and pure, with voicing well matched, and Handel's contrapuntal lines were cleanly articulated. Numbers that can seem wooden were animated, with a decidedly fiery spark in the chorus He Trusted in God.
This concert aspired to the 1753 version of the Messiah performed in London - the first not to be directed by Handel himself, who was by then blind. Thomas's approach with the Welsh Chamber Players, who boast no Baroque performance practice credentials as such, was as meticulous as with his choristers, and achieved a constant, energising flow. In the solo recitatives and arias, too, he drew singing that measured convincingly against the most stringent of markers.
Emma Kirkby may no longer have her wholly angelic perfection, nevertheless, I know That My Redeemer Liveth radiated conviction. The impeccable phrasing and clarity of tenor Andrew Kennedy was most impressive, and the baritone Christopher Dixon signalled his potential in The Trumpet Shall Sound. Yet for style and assurance, it was the countertenor William Towers who stood out. Of all the elegant elaborations of the da capo arias, his were the boldest, and in the aria He Was Despised the beauty and directness of expression of his voice sent a shiver down the spine.