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Review

Handel - Messiah
Royal Hall, Harrogate, 4 December 2010

Messiah flyer

Memorable Messiah by choral society

When the Florentine Camerata, (a group of composers and librettists) met at the end of the 16th Century, their aim was to formulate an efficient musical device in which Drama (especially Greek Drama) could be set to music. The result was the now familiar Recitative, Aria and Chorus in which a story could be told, events and thoughts reflected upon and with comment sung by a Chorus. The pattern was seized upon by composers who subsequently wrote many Operas, Oratorios and staged dramas, this style of composing becoming critically important during the Baroque Era. When George Frederick Handel wrote Messiah, first performed in 1742, he created a work which used the same formula but which was neither opera nor oratorio. He had composed a work so unique that it has captured the imagination of listeners from that day to this.

Such was the case on Saturday last, when, in spite of the inclement weather, Harrogate Choral Society under their Conductor, Dr Andrew Padmore and accompanied by The Manchester Camerata performed this great work to a large and appreciative audience in the Royal Hall. The four soloists, Samantha Hay (Soprano), Beth Mackay (Mezzo-Soprano), Peter Wilman (Tenor) and Alistair Ollerenshaw (Bass) were placed in the centre of the Chorus which was most effective, both visibly and musically.

The Manchester Camerata is a superb group of players and demonstrated this immediately as the Overture began, with clean phrasing and immaculate articulation under the baton of Andrew Padmore. The warm transition from the E minor of the Overture to the major key of ‘Comfort ye’ introduced us to the lyrical Tenor voice of Peter Wilman who then gave a splendid performance of ‘Every valley’. Of particular note here was the dialogue between the soloist and the strings of the orchestra which was carefully and most effectively judged by the Conductor.

Harrogate Choral Society has grown in numbers of late under Andrew Padmore’s direction and as a result the overall tonal quality of the singing has become much broader and potentially far more expressive. The first chorus ‘And the Glory’ was sung with great character and style, as were all the choral movements during the evening. This chorus was notable for the positive vocal entries by the voices; a feature which characterised the whole of the evening’s performance and the Chorus are to be particularly commended for their preparation and hard work.

Alistair Ollerenshaw delighted the audience with superbly articulated semiquaver figures in ‘Thus said the Lord’ following which, Beth Mackay gave a stirring rendering of ‘But who may abide’ which included the rarely heard ‘He gave His back to the smiters’. This was sung with great passion and drama, contrasting well with the outer sections. During her performance of ‘O Thou that tellest’, which was sung with great sensitivity, it became rather apparent that the overall harmonic balance was not quite as satisfactory as it could have been. Perhaps the reason for this lay with the harpsichord being a little too quiet and thus not filling the essential harmonies above the Continuo Cello sufficiently to make adequate harmonic sense. It was rather unfortunate that during the evening, the tone of harpsichord rarely rose above a whisper.

The gravity of the Bass-Baritone produced great deal of velvety darkness through which the people walked, before the Chorus rejoiced with excellent and clearly articulated singing in ‘For unto us a child is born’.

One of the delights of this performance of Messiah was the immaculate attention to detailed phrasing in both the orchestra and chorus. This phrasing could almost have been considered more Classical than Baroque, but nevertheless it was most beautiful. After all, who is to say how it would have been played in 1742 when the Classical movement was itself gathering momentum and when warmer phrasing and sensitive dynamics were becoming the fashion of the day.

Samantha Hay brought a generous warmth to her pastoral items and included unusually attractive ornamentation in her recitatives. Clear and decisive runs in ‘Rejoice greatly’ characterised this lively performance.

The Choral Society gave excellent performances of the choruses but was particularly good in the choral fugues. The entries were always very confident and the singing very clear and accurate. The tenors as an example, delighted us during ‘His Yoke is Easy’ with a beautiful C minor entry with perfect control and tone. Perhaps the tempo was just a fraction too fast in ‘He trusted in God’ to transmit the full impact of this item but this and the following choruses culminating in ‘Hallelujah’ were very impressive indeed. Dr Padmore has now within his choral group a very eager and powerful group of Sopranos, though it could be suggested that it is in need of a little taming with respect to the rest of the choir.

The question ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together? ’ was asked with a well-judged tempo, without hurry and with dignity by Alistair Ollerenshaw who negotiated the several runs with ease; his voice providing a warm balm for the audience on such a cold evening.

The Soprano Air ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ once again let us enjoy the gentle and entrancing tones of Samantha Hay accompanied with great care by the orchestral strings. The quality of the orchestral accompaniment during the Arias was excellent but during the large choruses it was, on occasions nearly obliterated by the full tone of the Chorus. This is simply a question of balance, not a criticism of quality of which there was never any doubt.

The Bass-Baritone Aria ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’ was a great highlight of the evening with an exquisite example of sublimely beautiful trumpet playing rather than the big, bold and bright examples we sometimes hear on these occasions.

The work concluded with ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ and the great ‘Amen’ chorus following which there was long and appreciative applause. This was a performance of Handel’s Messiah that deserves much praise, not only for the quality of its musical content, but also for the detailed work done in its preparation. Andrew Padmore, the splendid soloists and all who took part must be complimented for this memorable performance of one of the most enduring works ever to have been written.

Adrian Selway