evening began inauspiciously in that while the cathedral's website and booking
sites had been urging audience members to arrive early, the doors remained resolutely
shut until just after 7.15pm so that a long, long queue was snaking round the
Tom Quad on a freezing evening. Some early birds were compelled to wait in line
for 45 minutes which struck me as an odd form of customer relations.
There have been a few Messiahs already in Oxford this Christmas season. Here we had the 32-strong Cathedral Singers, the cathedral's adult choir; amateurs, but they sing between 100 and 120 cathedral services per year. The 14 strings players of the trendily-named Oxybaroxy, a.k.a. Oxfordshire Youth Baroque Strings, major in the 17th and 18th century string repertoire. Conductor James Potter is a professional singer and conductor, and director of the Cathedral Singers. The venue, Christ Church Cathedral, is unusually small for a British cathedral, but unusually large for a college chapel (that said, King's College Chapel at Cambridge is 80% longer). As a music setting it offers a challenge to both the players and the audience; the latter must cope with a less than ideal view from a high proportion of the seats, and the former with a tricky acoustic. The musicians were located in the cathedral's crossing, ie intersection of nave, chancel and transepts, and the sheer cubic capacity of the space to be filled by the voices is enormous.
Potter took the opening Sinfonia at a stately pace, then we were into the first recitative. One of the quirky things about the Messiah is that the first sung part comes from solo tenor rather than the choir. But this was a happy circumstance here since tenor Robin Horgan got us off to a strong start, including lots of vibrato, with the melodic exhortation of 'Comfort ye, my people', projecting clearly from the soloists' eyrie in the cathedral's pulpit. He was also impressively emphatic when he returned in Parts II and II, notably in his 'Thy rebuke...'. The audience were placed to east, west, north and south of the soloists, but to those of us in the north transept they were having to project through the orchestra to reach us which was a struggle at some points in the performance. My experience of Messiahs performed in large spaces is that counter-tenors can often achieve a greater clarity of tone and diction than, say, the altos.
I thought the choir, especially the sopranos, took time to get into its stride; in the second chorus their phrasing in the repetitions of 'And He shall purify...' was uncertain, but its singers began to find their full voice by the time the 'Glory to God in the highest, and peace...' from Luke's Gospel came round. In Part II, the choir produced cohesive part singing in the 'All we like sheep.... and the Lord hath laid on him...' James Potter has an undemonstrative style as conductor, with restrained gestures and graceful arm movements. Of course the groundwork for an oratorio has been put in beforehand in the rehearsal room, and it was noticeable how Potter was able to push on from recitative to air and on to the next chorus, needing and giving very little pause.
The young orchestra did pretty well; if bow articulation was sometimes a bit of a problem, with notes not always brought to a close just as purposefully as they were sounded, this is a common fault in non-pro ensembles. The upper strings performed neatly for the whirring passages accompanying the bass soloist's air 'Why do the Nations...?' and the lower strings' of Rachel Appel, Zak El-Shibirny (cellos) and Aidan Adcock (double bass) were reliable all evening.
Of the remaining soloists, bass Daniel Tate sang smoothly and combined nicely with the trumpet in his famous 'The trumpet shall sound' (B flat trumpeter sisters Amelia and Nadia Oxley demonstrating good breathing control and firm tone for the obligato).
Soprano Aileen Thomson really came into her own for the key 'I know that my Redeemer liveth'. Here she was joined not by the whole band but just solo violin and cello, Leo and Rachel Appel, brother and sister. This unusual treatment of the air was an inspired one, since this trio of musicians, playing and singing in the shadow of the 15th century choir roof vaulting, combined to magical effect. At the Messiah's premiere in Dublin in April 1742, gentlemen were requested to attend without swords and ladies without hooped dresses so as to maximise the capacity of the Musick Hall. Here the audience too was packed in, but as this air wound its way on, you could have heard a pin drop.