Handel: Messiah

Live broadcast from King's College Chapel, Cambridge

Clapham Picturehouse, London, 10 April 20093.5 stars

Stephen CleoburyOnce again Picturehouse Cinemas has offered to the British audience a jewel from the crown of classical music panorama. This time the English tradition was to be celebrated: Handel's Messiah was performed and broadcast live from King's College Chapel, Cambridge, featuring the Academy of Ancient Music and soloists from the Royal Opera House.

Other than celebrating Handel's anniversary year, this concert marked the 800th anniversary of the University of Cambridge, as Richard Lloyd Morgan recalled in his introductory speech. In addition to this reason, the concert was memorable in many other ways: apart from exploiting iconic subjects of the English cultural heritage – one musical, the other institutional – it was also the first choral concert to be carried live via satellite. It was interesting, for this particular member of this audience, to reflect on this kind of experience – a live broadcast – and to enjoy a fine performance altogether.

Director of Music at King's Stephen Cleobury's interpretation was perhaps too canonical, but it served Handel's piece well. Not much can be added to comment on an excellent performance by the Academy of the Ancient Music. In particular, the understanding between the orchestra and the Choir of King's College was remarkable. Similarly notable were also the trumpets' solos: in 'The trumpet shall sound', the atmosphere in the Chapel, as well as in the cinema, was one of evocative majesty.

As for the impeccable Choir performance, I was pleasantly surprised by the rendition of one of the famous numbers, 'For unto us': rather than singing it with severe energy, as is so often heard,the Choir's approach on this occasion was delicate and homogeneously soft. The result was a subtle and fragile melodic line that conferred a special colour on the piece.

The soloists' interpretation was satisfying and in some cases outstanding. Former Young Artist of the Royal Opera Ailish Tynan made Handel's piece shine, especially in the intertwining of her vocal lines with the trumpets. Bass Matthew Rose, again a former ROH Young Artist, was precise and showed himself at ease all through the performance.

The dialogue between the orchestra and the mezzo Alice Coote was particularly effective. One of the finest interpreters of the Baroque repertoire, Coote pushed her expressive power to the extreme. Her engagement with the text was almost surreal, especially while delivering the lines that narrate Jesus' griefs ('He was despised and rejected of men'). Perhaps, in this case, the emphasis on the visuals was confusing: if the vocal expressivity was excellent, the lingering of the camera on her passionate facial gestures was nevertheless distracting.

At first, I wasn't convinced by tenor Allan Clayon. He seemed not to be entirely comfortable in the virtuoso embellished parts; yet, as the performance went on, he showed himself at ease and his interpretation was persuasive, especially in the slower and more poignant numbers.

Mimetic camera movements accompanied the singing in lines such as 'Arise, shine, for thy light is come', providing the audience in cinemas with another level of engagement with the piece – one that makes a complex event of any broadcast. In fact, the possibility of experiencing an intimate and almost voyeuristic contact (albeit mediated by the camera) with the performers makes televised concerts an inspiring experience.

This broadcast was technically proficient. Nevertheless, sometimes the performance suffered from the attempt to convey an excessive purity of sound. This dulled some of the lightness and vivacity from which any Baroque work benefits. Some of camera movements appeared awkward for the cinema audience too, such as the choice of particular side angles: these aimed to highlight the Chapel's architectural majesty, yet were at times perplexing in their distortion.

Together with a perfect performance, this high definition broadcast conveyed some aspects that are lost when sitting in concert hall seats. In this case, these could be satisfaction on an instrumentalist's face, or a young treble scratching his eyes after the three hours of singing. These little details make a broadcast an even richer way of experiencing a piece of music. We're lucky to have Picturehouse cinemas to provide us with such opportunities.

By Marina Romani

This concert was broadcast to over 85 screens across Europe, thanks to Opus Arte, Arts Alliance Media and DigiScreen in association with EMI and King's College. EMI Classics will make the live concert recording available on digitally on 14 April – the date that marks the exact anniversary of Handel's death in 1759. The CD will be released on 20 April.

Photo: Stephen Cleobury

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