In the season of good will it is instructive to recall that Handel chose to make the unveiling of his “new sacred oratorio”, Messiah, a charity event. The premiere of the work in Dublin in 1742 was given in aid of three charities, including one for the relief of debtors who had been thrown into prison, and 142 poor souls were released as a result of the takings.
That performance was in the spring, but Messiah soon became a Christmastide regular. Styles of performance have varied wildly since Handel’s day, but it says a lot about our historically aware age that a big, seasonal presentation of the work should now routinely be on a modest scale, as at this performance by the Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment.
Handel himself might have been surprised (the evidence suggests he was happy to use as many, and whatever, forces he could muster) but the accomplishment of today’s performers would surely please him, especially professional choirs, such as that of the OAE, which make light of the technical challenges.
Thoughtfully conducted by Robert Howarth, this was a middle-of-the-road Messiah as it stands today – tastefully shaped, clear of texture, and with a spring in its step that paid homage to the dance rhythms that lie behind so much Baroque music (though not as overtly as Gustav Leonhardt, one of the great pioneers of period performance, who died earlier this year, used to do). Beyond that, it declined to take risks: performances by conductors as diverse as the late Charles Mackerras and Paul McCreesh have dug deeper into the score and shown how wide is its spectrum of light and dark, how exhilarating its range of emotions. Next to them, this performance did not go beyond the polite.
Charles Jennens’s libretto is a gift to a singer who can play with words and John Mark Ainsley was brilliantly adept at that in the tenor solos. All four of the soloists were skilful – Julia Doyle riding the coloratura of “Rejoice Greatly” with ease, Tim Mead filling the alto arias with gleaming tone, bass Matthew Brook proudly joining the OAE’s solo trumpet in duet – but this Messiah was rarely more than an evening of accomplished musicianship on its best behaviour.