Handel Messiah HWV56 (1741)
Mary Bevan (soprano), Reginald Mobley (countertenor), James Gilchrist (tenor), Christopher Purves (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / John Butt (harpsichord)
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 8 June 2022
Written by Richard Whitehouse
Unlikely as it might seem, the CBSO Chorus had never given Handel’s Messiah before this evening – the regular stream of performances by choral societies or the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra having other priorities putting paid to any such intention until tonight.
Not that Messiah has ever lacked for performances since its Dublin premiere in April 1742 – after which, it soon became recognized as, if not necessarily the finest of Handel’s numerous oratorios, then certainly the most representative; a template for the genre such as dominated music-making in Britain over the next 175 years. His text drawn freely from the Old and New Testaments, Charles Jennens relates Christ’s birth, death and resurrection then triumph of the Christian gospel in meaningful while not profound terms as were bound to strike a resonance.
Formerly the work falls into three parts of 16 scenes and 53 individual (not always separate) numbers, ranging from brief solo recitatives to lengthy arias and extended choruses in what became a blueprint for those oratorios as followed apace over the next decade. Although all four soloists share in relating aspects of the narrative, there is no division into specific roles as in Passion settings; itself a sure means of conveying a dramatic scenario without the need to endow musical content with an overly theatrical aspect as might have become distracting.
Tonight’s soloists evidently had no lack of familiarity with the work. For all their individual excellence, the deftness of Reginald Mobley’s lightly inflected alto, mellifluousness of James Gilchrist’s high tenor and elegance of Christopher Purves’s lyric baritone perhaps limited the emotional contrast possible between solo items. This was hardly the case with Mary Bevan (above), whose eloquent assumption of the soprano numbers, not least an I know that my Redeemer liveth as brought out the pathos of music that long ago seemed to have become its own stereotype.
Otherwise (not unreasonably) it was the choral items which really hit home. Enthused by the chance to sing this work the CBSO Chorus gave its collective all: whether in those energetic earlier choruses, fervent anticipation of Glory to God in the highest, contrapuntal vigour of Hallelujah or the majestic accumulation of Worthy is the Lamb, whose elaborate ‘Amen’ was powerfully rendered. Simon Halsey and Julian Wilkins (behind the organ manual) had evidently ensured that, for the CBSOC’s rare outing in this work, nothing was left to chance.
Not that the CBSO’s contribution was found at all wanting. Avoiding a temptation to try out one of the latter-day orchestrations, the string sections were modest (10.8.6.4.2) while almost always achieving a viable balance with the chorus. Bassoon, theorbo and organ constituted a discreet continuo, Matthew Hardy’s timpani underpinned the final choruses and Gwyn Owen was superb in the concertante role of The trumpet shall sound. Directing at the harpsichord, John Butt secured playing of incisiveness and depth with no recourse to specious authenticity. Given that the CBSO Chorus celebrate its half-century next year, it might have been thought advisable to schedule this performance during 2023. No matter – tonight proved a memorable occasion and it seems highly unlikely that a repeat account will have to wait another 49 years.
For more information on the CBSO’s 2021/22 season, visit their website, and for details on the newly announced 2022/23 season click here. Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of John Butt, Mary Bevan, Reginald Mobley, James Gilchrist and Christopher Purves