The Messiah rolled into St John the Evangelist on Sunday evening, having been performed by the same orchestra, soloists and many in the choir on the preceding days in London and Dorchester Abbey. Oxford always sees many - perhaps too many - Messiahs in the weeks before Christmas, but if there's a better one than this in 2016 then it can only come from massed choirs of angels in some sort of paradise. For this was a Messiah without a weak link. There are generally one or two areas of frailty in the playing resources: perhaps an alto struggling a bit with the notes in the lowest register or a tenor not quite filling every last cubic centimetre of the venue space or a choir a little at sea with the top notes or the complex part-singing of a number. Here, the chain was flawless.
From the moment the Orchestra of St John's went at the overture with its poignant opening and sudden switch to a more rapid fugue, it was clear that energy was to be the name of the game. Our players numbered a stripped-down 12, surely the very minimum to play this music; any fewer and we'd almost have been in octet territory. But what a sound they produced. Violinists Matthew Ward and Robert Salter led the way with verve, and I noticed that when the soloists in part 1 of the oratorio indulged in a little supernumerary flourish or two, the fiddlers followed them. The bass section of single cello and bass plus organ continuo backed up their colleagues nobly.
One of the quirky things about the piece is that the first sung part is a recitative and then air from the tenor rather than a chorus. Christopher Turner hit the ground running with his emphatic diction, grasp of the phrasing and big volume. The tenor has a little less to do than his colleagues, but Mr Turner set the standard for the rest. What's more, he told me in the interval he'd been ill and lost his voice completely in the preceding week. He formed his recitative in part II, 'Thy rebuke hath broken His heart', into a statement bursting with drama. Conductor and orchestra founder John Lubbock took the choir into their opening 'And the glory of the Lord' at a spanking pace and so he continued throughout, always pushing on but without a trace of hurrying. Handel left next to no guidance in the score (he himself conducted at the opening night in Dublin from the harpsichord) so a conductor has a bit of licence.
The soloists took their turn one by one. Baritone Julien van Mellaerts was a calm presence with a notably smooth voice, though rising to a thunderous climax in his 'Why do the nations so furiously rage' and at the concluding 'We shall be changed' from 'The trumpet shall sound'. Counter tenor Roderick Morris, following in the footsteps of James Bowman who has often performed the role in Oxford, impressed with his clear, natural tone - no throatiness - though possibly his diction was a little more muddy than that of his colleagues. Soprano Hannah Davey was terrific. This is the third time I've heard her lately and she's got better and better. Ms Davey has a big voice (and that's needed in St John the Evangelist with its high nave and yawning aisles) but lacks nothing in finesse. Her tone was very pure in the duet with counter tenor 'Come unto him', and then in part III in her 'I know that my redeemer liveth', the very heart of the oratorio and of course of the Christian message, and in which she told me she finds particular inspiration, she took it steadily, stretching out a little the notes and the syllables, and in the church you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.
As for the choir, numbering 40 or so, therefore neither too many nor too few, it produced a big sound when required - at the end of the Hallelujah chorus the audience broke into a round of applause - but plenty of delicacy otherwise. They were precise in 'Surely He hath borne our griefs', flexible in the part singing of 'For unto us a child is born' and moving in the finale and the 'Amen', the entry of the trumpets during which has been described as "marking the final storming of heaven". Those angels to whom Handel was appealing would have appreciated this superb Messiah.