Handel’s Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall

Perhaps somewhat in the spirit of enquiry, we went along to this year’s
performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall on
Wednesday 18th December 2019. Christoph Altstaedt conducted the
Philharmonia Chorus and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with soloists Natalya
Romaniw, Marta Fontanals Simmons (replacing an ailing Katie Bray), Egan
Ll?r Thomas and William Thomas.

The chorus numbered some 130, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra fielded
only a moderate size team, with just two oboes and one bassoon, with
continuo provided by a portative organ and harpsichord. The fine team of
young soloists are perhaps best known for their operatic roles: Natalya
Romaniw recently made her debut as Puccini’s Tosca with Scottish
Opera and will be appearing as Puccini’s Madama Butterfly with
English National Opera in 2020; Marta Fontanals Simmons sang the lead role
of Hel in Gavin Higgins new opera, The Monstrous Child at the
Royal Opera House; Egan Ll?r Thomas is currently a Harewood Artist at
English National Opera; and despite still being on the opera course at
Guildhall School of Music and Drama, William Thomas has already made his
debut with Vienna State Opera.

Conductor Christoph Altstaedt took a modern, period-performance inspired
view of the work. The days seem long gone when modern orchestras could
completely ignore the historically informed approach, and nowadays
performing Baroque music requires the delicate navigation through a tricky
field. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played with admirable crispness and
lightness, and I very much enjoyed their performance throughout the
evening. Their two solo spots, the overture and the Pifa, were finely done
with plenty to enjoy. Altstaedt’s tempos were on the fast side, and he
certainly took no prisoners, yet his performers, both soloists and choir,
we well up to the task and throughout the evening we had some admirably
fleet passage work.

In the early 1980s, I worked with a veteran choral conductor in Edinburgh
who commented that the overall timing of Messiah could be gauged
from the speed at which the choir could sing the semi-quaver passages. In
the case of the wonderfully admirable Philharmonia Chorus that seemed to be
at whatever speed Altstaedt wanted, and they sang with a nice lightness and
unanimity too.

What let the performance down, for me, was the issue of balance, which is
an area where many modern instrument performances go wrong. In the late
18th century when the large-scale Handel oratorio performances were born,
it was common to multiply up, so that with a large body of strings you had
a larger group of wind. Here we had just two oboes and a bassoon, and
whilst I know that the wind parts are not essential, it seems redundant to
have instruments playing that are inaudible in many of the large scale
choral passages, we seriously needed to double or triple the wind numbers
to provide balance.

The other area of balance was with the portative organ: it was adequate for
continuo when just the orchestra was playing but simply did not have enough
power to support a choir of 130 singers. The result was that, in many of
the large scale choruses, the sound was basically that of singers and
strings, with no extra colour from wind or organ. It seemed a shame that
the Royal Albert Hall organ, playing the scaled-down registrations, could
not have been used.

We heard a pretty standard version of Messiah, with no surprises
but a few cuts. Part One was given complete, there were cuts at the end of
Part Two and significant reductions in Part Three.

Nowadays, singing Puccini’s heroines on the operatic stage and singing the
soprano solos in Handel’s Messiah is not that common, but in the
earlier part of the 20th century singers would not have found the idea
unusual. Natalya Romaniw sang with a lovely flexibility of line and
attractive bright tone, and if the top of her range lacked something of the
ease that a lighter soprano might have brought to the role, she more than
compensated by her intelligent shaping of Handel’s vocal lines. She brought
a nice sense of drama to the Part One sequence and made ‘Rejoice greatly’
really sound as if she meant it! ‘How beautiful are the feet’ in Part Two
was nicely shapely whilst ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’, sung to quite a
flowing tempo, was full of the confidence of belief.

Marta Fontanals Simmons, a last-minute replacement for Katie Bray who is
ill, sang with lovely straight, well-modulated tone. Her Part One solos
were full of lovely sculpted phrases and ‘Refiner’s Fire’ had some
impressive passage-work. In Part Two, ‘He was despised’, which was sung
complete with its da capo, and had quite a fast tempo, but Fontanals
Simmons gave it a sober performance, singing with lithe tone yet full of

Tenor Egan Ll?r Thomas started somewhat uneasily; in his trenchant
performance of ‘Every Valley’ he seemed inclined to push the tone a little,
perhaps worried about projection in the Royal Albert Hall, so we missed the
sense of easy lyricism. But in the long tenor sequence in Part Two, he
focused on the sheer drama of the music and impressed with expressiveness,
approaching operatic vividness at some points.

Bass William Thomas impressed with his firm, dark tone and strong, flexible
line in his solos in Part One, as well as some impressively fluid
passage-work. ‘Why do the nations?’ in Part|Two was similarly exciting,
taken at quite a fast tempo. And ‘The trumpet shall sound’ thrillingly
combined resonant tone with a nicely fluid sense of line.

Conductor Christoph Altstaedt clearly relished having a large chorus which
could give him both fluidity and speed (with impressively light and fast
passage-work), but also weight and drama, not to mention the sound of 130
hushed voices. All this ensuring that the all-important choral contribution
to the evening was both technically well crafted and highly satisfying.

Diction all round was excellent. Whilst I admit that I do know the words,
it was gratifying to find how many of them both soloists and choir managed
to get over.

Overall, this was a remarkably satisfying performance, demonstrating that
large-scale accounts of Messiah work well in the right hands.

Robert Hugill

George Frideric Handel: Messiah

Natalya Romaniw (soprano), Marta Fontanals Simmons (mezzo-soprano), Egan
Ll?r Thomas (tenor), William Thomas (bass), Philharmonia Chorus, Royal
Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph Altstaedt (conductor).

Royal Albert Hall, London; 17th December 2019.

product_title=Handel’s Messiah, at the Royal Albert Hall
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: Natalya Romaniw

Photo credit: Opera Omnia