Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

A Messiah of our time, from the Academy of Ancient Music, both proud and resplendent.


The Academy of Ancient Music , Barbican Centre, London, , December 19, 2020
Messiah by The Academy of Ancient Music There is a lot to think back on in 2020, though I’m sure most would rather forget. For me, I’ve watched some wonderful TV and film and got to interview people who I never imagined I could. What was lacking was (obviously) live performance…I have dearly miss concerts this year.

Messiah could easily be dubbed “posh Xmas music”, but it is so much more. Since its premier in Dublin 1742, this has become a cherished work, certainly Handel’s most beloved. Whilst musicians are grateful for it helping fund them every holiday period, this year would test this fall back greatly. Saying this, there have been a handful of performances and this at the Barbican with the Academy of Ancient Music boasting a small live audience (which was later redacted due to the guidelines, resulting in just a livestream).

How chilling to see an empty, darkened Barbican auditorium. Yet, the music offered here glowed shone on our screens. The birth and death of Christ is brought to life in the compiling of biblical texts of Charles Jennens and the mix of Handel music is an exquisite broth. It’s quite a long work and the orchestra, choir and soloists all shine with a sense of abandonment within. Director Richard Egarr leads proceedings and appears to relish in every note. His leading on harpsichord also brimming with glee. Messiah leads with the score, even with the context of the story. Everyone has always found something in Messiah: it’s catchiness, it’s beauty and so forth.

The soloists Rowan Pierce, Iestyn Davies (who I interviewed the week prior), Ben Johnson and Ashley Riches bring all unique qualities to their arias. You really get a feel for each voice type here, Pierce sublime in her soprano. Davies is one of the leading countertenors of our time and to hear him sing ‘He was despised’ as an example, will only prove this more. Johnson belts out the declarations throughout with aplomb and Riches (who appears to have the largest part out of the soloists) never falters in his bass.

Even with the pandemic, one still feels that Messiah can grant fatigue, though I cannot deny the power of a concert like this, at a time like this. The Academy and Choir, who appease traditionalists, have a whale of a time, even is they are spread out across the stage, lacking the intimacy a work like this demands. Their passion for all things authentic helps conjure up a more vivid portrayal of the music from the eras they much respect.

One for the history books and one in our hearts for years to come.

Rating: 4 stars
Photo by Mark Allan/Barbican

Read my interview with Iestyn Davies talking about Messiah and his Wigmore Hall concert.

Reviewed by: James Ellis

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