A performance of Handel‘s Messiah at St David’s Hall is always a pretty sure sign that the Christmas season is upon us, although the work itself was actually first performed at Easter and it’s by no means clear why it ended up being so strongly associated with this time of year. Whatever the reason I don’t mind admitting that Messiah is a piece that’s redolent with nostalgia for me – some of the texts remind me a lot of Sunday School and singing in a church choir when I was little and then, a bit later, listening to the whole thing at Christmas time at the City Hall in Newcastle. I loved it then, and still do now, over 40 years later. I know it’s possible to take nostalgia too far – nobody can afford to spend too much time living in the past – but I think it’s good to stay in contact with your memories and the things that shaped you when you were young. It’s actually been far too long – six years in fact – since I last went to a performance of Messiah (in the same venue) so I relished the chance to hear it again.
Messiah is the most frequently performed choral work in the entire repertoire, and so much has been said and written about it already that I’m not going to say much about here, except for one thing that struck me about it last night that I hadn’t thought about before which makes it quite an unusual work: unlike most other oratorios I’ve heard, the four vocalists are not associated with specific characters or roles. The reason for that is that the work spans the entire biblical story of the Messiah, from Old Testament prophecy to the Nativity (Part 1) , the Passion of Christ (Part II, culminating in the Hallelujah Chorus), and the Resurrection of the Dead (Part III). The Nativity only features (briefly) in Part I, which is why it’s a little curious that Messiah is so strongly associated with Christmas.
Last night’s performance involved the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera (conducted by Adrian Partington) and the BBC National Chorus of Wales (including Ed’s sister) with soloists Soraya Mafi (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo), Ben Johnson (tenor) and James Platt (bass). Handel’s original scoring was for a relatively small orchestra and chorus but over the years it has become fashionable to perform it with larger forces. Last night the orchestra was modest in size, but the BBC National Chorus of Wales was more-or-less at full strength. There was a harpsichord.
I felt it took both the orchestra and the chorus a little while to warm up: the strings were a little ragged during the opening Sinfony and, early on, the large choir seem to lack the sharpness one might have expected given the very high standards to which they usually perform. Once they got into their stride, however, they were really excellent and Parts II and III (after the interval) were superb throughout. I can see the attraction of using smaller forces for this work, actually, because it’s much easier to bring a smaller choir into a tight focus. One the other hand, the larger choir makes the louder moments (such as the Hallelujah Chorus, for which as usual the audience stood) absolutely thrilling. It’s worth mentioning also that the orchestra expanded a little bit for Parts II and III – no brass or percussion are used in Part I – but trumpets and timpani appeared after the interval. I’d like to pick out the percussionist Patrick King (although to be honest his beard needs a bit more work) and the principal trumpet Dean Wright (whose brilliant solo playing during “The trumpet shall sound”” was absolutely thrilling when juxtaposed with the splendidly deep sonority of James Platt’s bass voice (whose beard is magnificent). I also enjoyed the crystal clarity and wonderful agility of soprano Soraya Mafi, especially on “I know that my redeemer liveth“.
All in all, it was a hugely enjoyable evening at St David’s Hall, which was so busy it seemed to take an age to get out at the end of the performance! The concert was recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Monday 19th December at 7.30, so you can listen to it yourself and make your own mind up whether my comments above are fair.
Well, that will be the last of my concert-going for 2016 so I’d just like to thank all the musicians and singers I’ve had the pleasure of listening to since I returned to Cardiff for shining some much-needed light into what has otherwise been a very gloomy year.Follow @telescoper