Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem, together with soloists and the Basler Madrigalisten, performs Handel's "Messiah"

Having recently opened its 28th concert season, the Israel Camerata Jerusalem performed G.F.Händel’s “Messiah” on October 25th 2011, filling the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. The concert was also one of the events of Culture Scapes – the Swiss Cultural Season in Israel. Under the baton of its founder, director and conductor Maestro Avner Biron, the orchestra was joined by the Basler Madrigalisten (Basel Madrigalists) and soloists – soprano Ruby Hughes (UK), countertenor James Laing (UK), tenor James Oxley (UK) and bass-baritone Markus Flaig (Germany).

The writing of Händel’s “Messiah” HWV 56 (1741) was actually requested by Charles Jennens, Händel’s librettist. The composer obliged, writing the entire work (he composed 26 oratorios in London) in 24 days, the oratorio having its first performance in Dublin in 1742. So great was the demand for tickets to the premiere that a request was sent out asking “the favour of the Ladies not to come with hoops” and the gentlemen “to come without their swords”. The oratorio’s initial years of airing in London, however, came up against opposition of different kinds: the English claimed it had no story, that there were too few solos and too many choral movements. Jennens, himself, was disappointed and wrote “I shall put no more sacred works into his hands”. Various religious groups were opposed to Händel’s use of biblical texts in the theatre, “prostituting sacred things to the perverse humour of a Set of obstinate people”. (Most of the texts are taken from the Old Testament, specifically from the Book of Isaiah, the New Testament texts coming from a number of different scriptures.) Those objecting were surely unaware of the fact that the duet-choruses in “Messiah” were actually reworkings of love-duets Händel had written previously, these providing balance with the larger choruses, interaction between individual singers and moments of intimacy to the work. Actually intended as an Easter oratorio, “Messiah” is much performed around Christmas. Twenty five years following its premiering, however, “Messiah” had become so popular in London that there were almost riots amongst those wishing to attend performances at Westminster Abbey. The work has remained one of the most frequently performed oratorios.

The Basler Madrigalisten (musical director Fritz Näf), an ensemble of up to 24 singers (depending on repertoire), founded in 1978 at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, addressed each choral section with the choir’s bright timbre hallmark, superbly articulate diction and use of consonantal textures and separations to draw attention to key words. Their choral sound is one of a rich mix of individual colors, all sections well balanced, the two countertenors adding interest to the alto section. Soprano Ruby Hughes sang with radiant purity of sound on one hand, her performance enhanced by her sense of drama, on the other. Tenor James Oxley was commanding, gripping and intense in his detailed presentation of the texts. Bass-baritone Markus Flaig’s work on the oratorio genre spans from the Renaissance to contemporary works. His solos in this performance illuminated the meaning of the text. His reverent and expressive singing of “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth” (Isaiah 40/60) evoked, almost visually, the play of light and darkness in the words. Charismatic young British countertenor James Laing addressed and involved the audience all the way, his voice, powerful and moving, delivering the text with emotional depth, his lines tastefully ornamented. His fluid singing of “He was despised” (Isaiah 50/53) was imbued with both suffering and resentment.

The orchestra’s playing was effective, clean and delicate, Biron never missing an opportunity to create a mood, to flex very gently in the name of expression and to draw out contrasts. His brass players also delighted the audience in their exuberant, precise gesturing. Spiraling into an exciting Hallelujah Chorus (the audience did not rise), the performance then swept us with the optimism and exuberance of the “Hymn for the Final Overthrow of Death” to the final, many-faceted and grand fugal “Amen”. There have been many performances of “Messiah” in Israel over recent years. The Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s performance of “Messiah” was, however, truly memorable.

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