Staffordshire Performing Arts: Handel's Messiah Live Review @ Lichfield Cathedral (Staffordshire) - 26 Mar 2011
Photos: Rich Spencer Photography
Attending a performance of a baroque choral work in a Cathedral may not, to many, sound like a very rock and roll way to spend a Saturday evening, but, despite admittedly stuffy etiquette, classical concerts can be just as exciting, moving and/or varied as any other.
Led by the precision and expertise of conductor Nigel Taylor and perfectly equipped with vocal ability and both intensity coupled with sensitivity, Staffordshire's own massed choirs (Staffordshire County Chorus, Staffordshire Youth Choir and Walton High School Chamber Choir), selections from Staffordshire Symphony Orchestra and a handful of outstanding choral soloists' collective performance of Handel's sacred oratorio, Messiah, in the beautiful setting of Lichfield Cathedral certainly refused to disappoint. Many composers of centuries gone by and the highly-skilled musicians that perform their works know exactly the musical buttons to press to thrill an audience; the sound of an orchestra-accompanied, one hundred and forty strong chorus and choral soloists filling the cavernous nave of a gothic cathedral is nothing other than a stunning, goosebump-inducing experience, and, regardless of bias, Lichfield's unique, three-spired Cathedral is a particularly fine setting for such a performance. Messiah is an oratorio, a musical setting of a sacred text that is a substantial work formed of a collection of pieces in a similar vein to an opera, but instead an unstaged concert piece; from overture right through to chorused conclusion, SPA sustained both their conviction, precision and strong confidence.
Following a precisely performed instrumental overture, Tenor soloist Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks took the lead for a recitative then aria. Both male soloists, Tenor Mackenzie-Wicks and Bass Michael Bundy, maintained faultless, powerful vocals even through trickier, fast-moving passages and moments where the piece tested their vocal flexibility in terms of range. Similarly too, the female soloists, Alto Deborah Miles-Johnson and two ex-Birmingham Conservatoire Sopranos Harriet Hunter and Helena Rayburn, were equally as outstanding throughout the entirety of the performance, particularly during quartet and quintet passages with other soloists. Commendable too was all five soloists' ability to project their voices without losing moments of beauty and sensitivity during quieter passages, whilst still holding back to project even more power for more dramatic and forceful sections.
Regardless of the high standard of the evenings' soloists, however, the highlights of the performance were, perhaps predictably, the chorus passages; those in which the massed sound of every performer echoed clear through the beautiful architecture. Moments of particular brilliance were the trumpet-flanked 'Glory To God' in part one of Messiah, and obviously the famous and familiar 'Hallelujah' chorus which concludes part two. Together with a timpani-punctuated orchestra, the massed choir, soloists and upstanding, appreciative audience joined forces in creating a high-volume, triumphant sound that must have carried at least round the Cathedral Close if not further afield; despite its' perhaps cliché familiarity, 'Hallelujah' really was of the goosebump-inducing, powerful moments of the performance. In a performance largely true to the time of the oratorio's 1741 completion, the orchestra was not a huge modern day symphony orchestra reinforced with the power of multiple brass and wind instruments, but instead an expert smaller ensemble of musicians that both expertly exercised restraint during sensitive passages and contrastingly let rip when the piece built to roaring drama; an ensemble definitely not compromised in any way by its' smaller size. A particular mention must also go to Harpsichordist Nigel Argust and Organist Martyn Rawles for their fine underpinning of the orchestra and authentic recreation of the intentions of the baroque composer, George Frideric Handel.
Both soloists and choir, together with an orchestra that varied between solo and tutti parts, under the expert direction of Nigel Taylor, all created an atmospheric performance laden with emotion, sensitivity, passion and spirituality; every single musician performed with true conviction and belief. As SPA's performance of Handel's Messiah reiterated, the somewhat stuffy etiquette of classical music shouldn't put people off attending performances of works on this scale; live classical music is every bit of an exciting sonic rollercoaster as the next Saturday evening gig.