CBSO's first-ever Messiah review


Handel's Messiah
CBSO at Symphony Hall *****

Handel's Messiah has a long and unbroken Birmingham and Midlands connection with both amateur and professional choirs, a fixture in many celebrated choirs' annual planning.
However, surprisingly, this was the first time that the CBSO had performed the work in one of its own concerts, and with its own Chorus. and the occasion had the feeling of a Gala event.
Replacing an indisposed Richard Egarr at short notice, John Butt conducted his large forces from the harpsichord, and led an entirely convincing interpretation that reconciled 'authentic' practice with the work's undoubted scope for grandeur.
This was a stellar line-up of solo singers, but while most oratorios put the spotlight on the soloists, Messiah has the chorus at its heart. The hundred-plus Chorus were seated immediately behind the orchestra on platform risers, close enough to create an atmosphere of intimacy when quiet, but also to surround us in majesty when in full flow. They danced joyfully over every hurdle that Handel gave them in fiendishly quick running passages. It shouldn't be surprising that the chorus were superbly prepared or that they sang with passion and faultless precision, but it's unusual to hear this work with such a high degree of technical expertise as well sheer warmth of sound.
John Butt favoured swift tempi, and there were no delays between numbers, with almost cinematic crosscutting between soloists and chorus everything had tremendous energy.
The four characterful soloists were uniformly excellent, with discreet and agile ornamentation much in evidence. James Gilchrist's 'Comfort ye' set the tone straight away with attention to diction and directness of expression. The welcome return of Mary Bevan provided many highlights of which of course 'I know that my Redeemer liveth' was one, with her sensitive handling of the text and exquisitely floated long notes. Christopher Purves was eloquently evocative of stillness in 'For behold, darkness shall cover the earth' and sang 'Why do the nations so furiously rage?' with immense power and outrage. Reginald Mobley was a new name to me, but after hearing him I shall rush to find out more. A beautiful even countertenor, he sang everything with a smooth creamy tone, regard to every word, and a wonderful sense of long-distance phrasing. His artistry shone in 'He was despised,' and for once one welcomed the 'da capo' repeat so that we could enjoy an ornamented reprise of the opening section.
A full performance of Messiah can be long. This one lasted over two and a half hours with a short break, but certainly didn't feel it. As the resplendent Amens of the final chorus resounded, I found myself still in agreement with a reviewer of the first performance in 1742 "The sublime, the grand, and the tender… conspired to transport and charm the ravished heart and ear."
John Gough

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