On the face of it, this Messiah had strong claims to be the crème de la crème of this Christmas season's clutch of Messiahs.Here was the Oxford Bach choir, 140 strong and of long and distinguished lineage, here 32 members of the London Mozart Players, and here Nicholas Cleobury, a choral music specialist and conductor of the finest Haydn's Missa in Angustiis I've heard. And so it turned out, notwithstanding the booked mezzo dropping out at the last minute and a frantic search having to be launched for a replacement. But Hanna-Liisa Kirchin hurried down on the morning Paddington Flyer and did the job with perfect aplomb (she told me she'd fortunately sung the part many times before).
This was Nicholas Cleobury's final engagement with the Bach Choir before shaking the wintry British gloom from his baton and heading off to a big new job in Brisbane, Australia. And how this Messiah demonstrated just what a presence we shall be missing. Mr Cleobury kindly gave me an interview before the concert in which he talked of the tempi he likes to set and, when asked how he maintains his zip and freshness for his umpteenth Messiah, made it clear that the opportunity to conduct such a masterpiece is in itself sufficient motivation. What he did not say then, but strongly suggested later in performance, is that I think he finds himself in a tripartite, symbiotic relationship; just as he gives out energy to his musicians, so also does he derive energy from the audience.
Tenor Daniel Auchincloss from Toronto, Canada led for the soloists and made a strong start with 'Ev'ry valley shall be exalted'. I've known a number of tenors strain to fill the cubic space of the venue; emphatically not in this case. He was succeeded by the excellent Miss Kirchin, then by Elizabeth Atherton's soprano. A most accomplished singer, and how smooth her 'Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion' was, where breathing control is tricky and imperative. If I had to raise a quibble, it would be that Miss Atherton's dramatic, operatic approach with plenty of vibrato sounded to my ear just a touch out of place in the pivotal 'I know that my redeemer liveth' at the beginning of Part III. Here, is not a simple, direct profession of faith the order of the day? Bass Matthew Stiff had arguably the most to do of the soloists, and he impressed with his fine, full-throated tone.
But inevitably the evening belonged to Mr Cleobury. I would describe his conducting style as flamboyant were it not for the precision of every gesture that wrung from singers and musicians all the pathos and passion endemic in this composition: a darting hand towards the fiddles, a sweeping call to the cellos, a jabbing signal to the choir alto section, an emphatic nod to the bass section, and all the while his head on a 360 degree swivel and the corner of his eye on his soloists. Like a top jazz drummer, every hand gesture seemed different from its predecessor. His choir did him proud, producing a big sound in 'Behold the lamb of God', sinuous part singing in 'For unto us a child is born' and even in the final 'Amen', they and Mr Cleobury were still finding subtle modulations of volume, giving it all they'd got.
Truly Brisbane's gain is Oxford's and Britain's loss.