Handel himself, in Dublin at the first performance of The Messiah on 13th April 1742, directed a choir made up of – accounts vary – either 14 men and 6 boys or 16 men and 16 boys. At the Sheldonian Theatre on this wet and squally early December evening, Oxford University Chorus mustered 65 altos and sopranos plus 30 tenors and basses, with an accompanying orchestra of 21, including 2 oboes, 2 trumpets, a bassoon and a timpani. Almost a small army, but an impeccably drilled one. A very different beast from those which turn out the scratch Messiahs that pop up everywhere.
So there’s plenty of leeway and tradition for both the micro- and the macro-approach, but what’s not negotiable is the necessity for an intensity of performance that pays homage to the burst of creativity that poured out of the composer for over 23 days and nights, with barely a pause for food or sleep. I’ve attended Messiahs where the soloists have failed in respect of one way or another to answer the two simple questions asked of them: have their voices filled every last cubic centimetre of the venue’s space, and have they sung the moving libretto as if they really mean it? Quite a tall order for young personnel, especially given that this is a non-auditioning choir.
Well, I thought our soloists did interpret the story with no small feeling and lyricism. Bass Conall O'Neill was solid. Once or twice soprano Ana Beard Fernandez struggled a touch with her breathing, but her cadences were nicely expressive. Tenor James Beddoe, while tuneful, like many other young tenors did not always quite produce the necessary volume of sound. The challenge for a female alto with respect to 'The Messiah' is the lower register, and my own preference tends towards having a male counter-tenor where available. In this respect Lila Chrisp's low notes I thought were just a trifle recessed, but otherwise she had a most delightful tone and made a very strong impression. In the orchestra the solo trumpet in 'The Trumpets Shall Sound' did so loud and very clear; first class. And we had a lively bassoon in 'He Was Cut Off Out of the Land of the Living.'
But the performance that really caught the eye and pleased the ear came from conductor Gabriella Noble. Just a little and understandably tentative in the instrumental intro, she soon picked up the pace in 'Comfort Ye My People' and a little later in 'The People that Walked in Darkness'. But the challenge is: what pace? Handel left no direction in the score for the tempo he required so it's up to the conductor to pick their way through the oratorio, guided solely by experience, judgement and personal taste. Miss Noble set a brisk tempo, no doubt wary of the amateur choir's propensity to dawdle, giving out waves of energy, attending to choir and orchestra by section, demonstrating admirable concentration and stamina. The dearth of female professional conductors in this country is nothing short of a disgrace. Were Miss Noble to devote herself in years to come to this calling, is it fanciful to envisage great things for her? In any event here she was just terrific!