Choir singing in Royal Hall
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Handel - Messiah
Royal Hall, Harrogate, 6 December 2008

A vibrant performance of the most-loved choral work of all was given to a capacity audience at the Royal Hall on Saturday, 6th December by Harrogate Choral Society and Manchester Camerata. Although Handel's Messiah needs no introduction to the overwhelming majority of music-lovers the fresh approach taken by conductor Andrew Padmore ensured a sense of continual engagement.

The 130-strong choir sang with rhythmic energy, especially in the contrapuntal passages and the triptych of F major/minor choruses were extremely well-contrasted. The sopranos sang with a clear bright tone and their top A at the final climactic point of the 'Amen' chorus was the most thrilling of many such moments. Others included the forte passages in 'For unto us' where all four sections contributed to a full, rich sound, as well as the emphatic drama of 'He Trusted in God'. Dynamic contrasts, especially the ones unusually added to 'Hallelujah', were effectively produced and the generally 'modern' quicker tempi, together with a minimum pause between movements, ensured that the work hung together as a very satisfying unit.

The Manchester Camerata is justifiably becoming more-regularly known to Harrogate audiences with its connection with this Choral Society. From the opening of the Overture – with its unexpected contrasts - and throughout the rest of the evening it played with clarity and precision.

All four soloists sang with excellent diction; Olivier Dumait (tenor) presented a lyrical tone quality, Paul Carey Jones (bass) was authoritative and forceful although the accentuation of his melismas was perhaps too exaggerated. Beth MacKay (mezzo-soprano) was pleasant but occasionally struggled to be well-balanced with the orchestra. However her rendition of 'He was Despised' was one of the many highlights; the dissonant appoggiaturas which she added gave the aria an extra poignancy and intensity. Philippa Hyde (soprano) was suffering from a chest infection but gave a most radiant performance. Although her tone was understandably thin she was visibly involved in the performance of the whole work and set an outstanding example of how committed to the total effect of the music it is possible to be.

What to include of the lesser-known movements always creates difficulties and it was refreshing to hear the usually-omitted 'Let all the Angels' as well as to solve the other perpetual problem by having it preceding the interval. The audience are also to be congratulated in that the majority of them stood for 'Hallelujah' at exactly the correct moment – as the choir sings the first word.

For this writer and many other people the Advent season is not the same without hearing a performance of this enduring masterpiece. That such a performance comes across with freshness and vigour gives great credit to all those involved.

Paul Dyson