The week in classical: AAM: Messiah; Krystian Zimerman, LSO/Rattle review – great conjunctions

Aside from political tumult, this winter solstice we witnessed a rare “great conjunction” in the skies. Finding a Messiah should have been a cinch. We’re talking musical rather than biblical. Handel’s oratorio is usually a seasonal mainstay across the land. Not in 2020. Thanks to a live stream from the Barbican, conducted with verve from the keyboard by Richard Egarr, we got our fix. Ignoring the latest health risks, last Saturday the musicians of the Academy of Ancient Music gathered in the City of London to delight us, while we stayed safely home. If they were still reeling from the news, that same afternoon, of a Christmas lockdown, they didn’t show it, launching into Handel’s masterpiece with an energy as unbridled and intense as it was elegant.

The AAM, as its name suggests, gives historically informed performances: an elite small chorus; baroque bows (different in dimension, weight and balance from modern ones), valveless trumpets and a host of other singularities. All combine to create freshness and transparency, the gentle, plucked sound of a theorbo, with chamber organ, underpinning all. Egarr favours conspicuous ornament. At times he hits the brakes where you least expect. Yet every decision is made with persuasive conviction, helped by a lineup of star British soloists: from the tenor Ben Johnson, exultant in Ev’ry valley, to the countertenor Iesytyn Davies’s fierce For He Is Like a Refiner’s Fire, to the bass Ashley Riches, urgent and questing in Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together. Finally the soprano Rowan Pierce, singing I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, offered serene redemption.

In this battle of a week, you may have missed the peerless, witty playing of Krystian Zimerman, soloist in Beethoven’s Five Piano Concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle, pre-recorded earlier this month, streamed over three nights on DG Stage and due out as an album in April 2021: as great conjunctions go, this one dazzled.

Star ratings (out of five)
Krystian Zimerman