read that Georg Friedrich Handel himself, contracted to produce an Easter
oratorio in Dublin, conducted on 13th April 1742 from the harpsichord
his small choir of maybe 15 men and 15 boys for Messiah's premiere. At St Mary the Virgin on this dry but cold late
November evening, the Queen's College choir mustered much the same forces: 16 sopranos and altos, and 12 tenors and
basses. Rather a discrepancy vis a vis those that became habitual in late Victorian
times, and later in the 1940s and 1950s Sir
Malcolm Sargent used to muster for the Huddersfield Choral Society's annual
Messiah a minimum of 65 altos and
sopranos plus 45 tenors and basses and an orchestra of 35. A
Messiah given in Kentucky, USA just the
other day featured a choir of 243 singers!
Conductor Owen Rees took Instruments of Time and Truth, Oxford's rather portentously named period-instrument players, smartly into the Sinfony with its serious beginning and sudden switch to a more rapid fugue, and then came the opening recitative and aria from tenor Peter Harris, warming us up forthwith with a strong timbre. On the repetition of "speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem" he delivered the words almost conversationally. The height of the nave of St Mary the Virgin, with its navy-blue, star-speckled roof can have a tendency to swallow up the voice of the solo singer but each of our four soloists projected without apparent forcing to the far recesses of the gallery.
Mezzo-soprano Esther Brazil commenced with the sombre "But who may abide the day of his coming". This solo role is more usually allotted to an alto or counter-tenor, and in reply to my question at the interval, Brazil told me that she had put in extra practice at the bottom end of the register. She needed it for statements like "For he is like a refiner's fire", but sang the libretto without noticeable strain. She is a Bach specialist and an associate of Professor Rees; not someone who churns out Messiahs year in, year out. She gave her part a bit of an operatic feel occasionally – an agreeable touch.
Bass-baritone Giles Underwood from University College produced a stirring sound for the "For behold...."; on the noble "but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee", my neighbours smiled with pleasure at the message of hope explicit in Charles Jennens' words combined with the melody line. I tend to prefer a full bass in this solo role for the extra richness of tone, but Underwood produced neither here nor in his querulous "Why do the nations so furiously rage together" the excess of vibrato with which basses can sometimes obfuscate the notes in the rapid passagework of their solos.
A delightful touch was the cover of the programme, featuring an Adoration of the Shepherds by James Crank, after Correggio, from Queen's College chapel. Queen's College choir had been preparing for this work all term, devoting part of their thrice-weekly Evensong practice sessions to it, plus one session with orchestra and soloists in the afternoon of the concert. Its reputation for excellence notwithstanding, one must remember that these are young voices, though precise and flexible, and in Part One I found the sound just a touch under-powered in the famous "For unto us a child is born" and again in "Glory to God". This impression was banished, however, in Part Two as they produced a full sound in "All we like Sheep", and likewise through the "Hallelujah" and to the concluding, moving "Worthy is the lamb". In between the two latter, soprano Louise Wayman intervened with her "I know that my redeemer liveth", the very heart of the oratorio and of course of the Christian message. Wayman had a smooth tone, plenty of power under the bonnet and looked throughout as if she were having a lot of fun, especially and appropriately in her "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion".
Owen Rees, conducting without a baton, stood in the sight-line of his soloists while directing his choir. The 14-strong orchestra was notable for the energy in both first and second violins, and Stephen Cutting made a fine impression in his "The trumpet shall sound", though it was a pity he was hidden from most of the audience by a hefty pillar. There are more Oxford Messiahs to come before Christmas, here again at St Mary the Virgin, at St Andrew's Church and at Christ Church Cathedral. As the Bard remarked; Age cannot wither her; nor custom stale...