7 December 2016
Groote Kerk, Cape Town
Camerata Tinta Barocca
Director/Harpsichord: Erik Dippenaar
Solo trumpet: Brendan Kierman
Louise Howlett, Lente Louw (sopranos)
Willem Bester, Warren Vernon-Driscoll (tenors)
Nick de Jager, Monika Voysey (altos)
Charles Ainslie, Abonga Sithela (basses)
Handel’s Messiah was first heard in Dublin in 1742, and has since become one of the most frequently performed large choral works. It utilised a small instrumental ensemble and choir at its premiere. Since then, the work had been continuously reworked for much larger forces.
The Camerata Tinta Barocca and the Cape Consort continued what has now become an annual tradition of presenting a small scale, historically informed performance of Handel’s masterpiece. Their main source was the 1741 version of the score. The choir numbered only 14 singers, six of whom performed the solos. Erik Dippenaar directed the choir and 18 instrumentalists, playing period instruments, from the harpsichord.
In a departure from previous years, overwhelming audience demand had prompted a change of venue from St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Green Point, to the much larger Groote Kerk in Adderley Street.
Dippenaar’s chosen tempos were ideal throughout. It kept the performance exciting and engaging, and three hours sped by in no time. Additionally, the ensemble between chorus and instrumentalists was immaculate. The smaller forces allowed for a much higher degree of clarity and detail to emerge from Handel’s famous score.
Unfortunately, a lot of these prized intricacies were gobbled up by the cavernous acoustics of the Groote Kerk. After the interval, with the air temperature dropping a few degrees, the sound improved marginally. This made the more florid vocal passages sound clearer, but anything softer than pretty loud still turned to mud in the dense reverberation of the church. The space clearly favours big noises.
The fuller voices of soprano Louise Howlett, alto Monika Voysey, and bass Abonga Sithela, had the least trouble being heard on the night. The rest of the soloists were still pleasant to behold, though.
Warren Vernon-Driscoll’s light and elegant tenor voice soared through the high notes and fast runs, and sounded equally suitable to pop music. It should come as no surprise, then, that he is indeed the lead singer of an indie rock band.
Nick de Jager’s countertenor voice always adds a unique flavour to early music. One does wonder, though, what a real castrato would sound like traversing the pyrotechnics of the Messiah’s alto arias. Alas, nowadays the cruel practise of chopping off a boy’s manhood before puberty is considered too great a sacrifice for musical authenticity.
A special mention must be made of soprano Lente Louw, who had the lion’s share of soprano solos. She sang the parts of the indisposed Elsabé Richter as well as her own.
Brendan Kierman played a faultless trumpet solo in “The Trumpet Shall Sound”, which is effectively a double aria for bass and trumpet.
The audience honoured a tradition of dubious authenticity by leaping to their feet for the Hallelujah chorus. Legend has it that King George II was so moved by the words that he stood up, possibly in reverence to the “King of kings”. Since no firm evidence exists that he had even attended the first performance, those of us with secular and antiroyalist inclinations may be forgiven for remaining seated.
Historically informed performance on period instruments is rapidly shaking off its image of boring, academic stiffness more suited to a museum than the concert hall. In fact, what I’ve heard from the Camerata Tinta Barocca has been utterly thrilling. They have surely managed to breath new life into old favourites. By abandoning the baggage of tradition, they have achieved freshness by going back to the source.