Messiah – November 2018

Hexham Abbey, November 24, 2018

Since its first performance in 1742 Handel’s Messiah has had a remarkable place in British musical culture.  For many years it was the annual pinnacle of amateur choral performance. The Hallelujah Chorus was one of the few bits of classical music that everyone knew and to hear the work performed on record by, say, the massed ranks of the Huddersfield Choral Society and a full symphony orchestra is to remember a different time of national and musical self-confidence.

Since the early I980s a quite different annual Messiah tradition has evolved, in which small Early Music ensembles present the work as something less grand and more measured. The pleasure of hearing a large amateur choir hymning the heavens is replaced by a more self-reflective and technically adept awe at God’s mysteries.

The Hexham Orpheus Choir was performing on the same day as European leaders were approving the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU, and it is tempting to see these two ways of performing Messiah as reflecting different national cultures, an English way of doing things (Handel as precursor of the British choral tradition) and a German way of doing things (Handel as the baroque contemporary of J. S. Bach).

As a composer, though, Handel was German and English, and under Mark Edwards’s intelligent direction, the Orpheus performance featured both musical sensibilities: a choir of 82 accompanied by just string quartet, church and chamber organs, trumpet and timpani.  This was a performance that was both ebullient and thoughtful.

The approach didn’t always work. The Hallelujah Chorus was sung magnificently; Chris Lewis’s trumpet playing and Neil Turnbull’s bass singing had the same sort of majestic assurance. The string quartet was lithely expressive and it was a pleasure to hear the separate instrumental lines so clearly; the playing was particularly lovely during the ‘The people that walked in darkness’.

In other places the choral singing was less crisply assertive. This was, I think, primarily a consequence of the peculiarities of the Abbey as an acoustic space. Choral concerts of this scale undoubtedly work better when placed in the north transept (like the choir’s Verdi Requiem last May). Even the customarily subtle lighting design couldn’t help. The organ was dramatically lit but the choir seem dimmed and the trumpeter was invisible.

At the end of the performance I sensed an audience feeling that this would have been a fully riveting performance if we could have heard all of it as Mark Edwards intended. But then this reflects the paradox of Messiah’s popularity: it is, in fact, a long and rather difficult work to sing, both technically and emotionally. Add the acoustic challenge of the Abbey and my final thought was that this performance was rather heartening. Performances of the Messiah should not be ceded to professional early music groups or choral traditionalists. It is a much too musically interesting work to be pinned down by a single performance and the Orpheus Choir’s occasional imperfection made this concert all the more fascinating.

Simon Frith