In late Victorian times The Messiah was regularly performed at the Crystal Palace by a chorus of 3,000 and an orchestra of several hundred, leading GB Shaw to remark years later: 'Only a law making it a capital offence to perform a Handel oratorio with more than 80 performers will revive Handel's music'. The 44 OSJ Voices together with the 13-strong OSJ Orchestra, plus soloists and conductor, slotted comfortably within Shaw's prohibition. The venue was the cavernous setting of Dorchester Abbey, for which The Messiah is an appropriate work since the North window of the Choir contains a stained glass and stone tracery Tree of Jesse, a schematic representation of a family tree. Jesse was the father of King David, and features in that part of the Book of Isaiah which describes the metaphorical descent of the Messiah into the world.
The novelty of this performance lay in the recent re-orchestration of Handel's score by conductor John Lubbock, turning it into a score for wind band rather than the time-honoured strings. The opening Sinfonia had the melody passing from player to player, the effect bright and immediate. Tenor John Findon quickly established his credentials in the opening Comfort Ye recitative and Every valley air - a big voice with plenty of resonance, though initially of a slightly harsh tone. The latter effect, however, was soon banished, and when the choir came in with its And the glory of the Lord, its quality too was established. A good balance in tenor/bass versus alto/soprano voices, plenty of controlled volume and agile in the part-singing phases.
When bass Jake Muffett opened with his But who may abide, he immediately indicated his approach – deliberate phrasing and impressive weight of voice delivered from an imposing bearing. I prefer a bass to a baritone for The Messiah since the latter can struggle getting down to the bottom of the register. I also usually find an alto or male counter-tenor preferable to a mezzo, but here when Charlotte Tetley began with her O thou that tellest good tidings to
The orchestra played the wind arrangement as if it were well-established in the repertoire. Thus we enjoyed an effective little bassoon burst in the choir's For unto us a child is born, a pretty clarinet/oboe duet in the preamble to He shall feed his flock, and a plaintive solo oboe along with the bass's vehement Why do the nations? The already fine overall experience received a further boost when soprano Hannah Davey stood up for her opening salvo of four quick recitatives, followed by her Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion air. I know her to be a classy soloist, but now she excelled herself with flexibility of voice in the coloratura passage, then in Part III in the crucial I know my redeemer liveth, she sang the words with great emotion and delicacy.
The choir demonstrated satisfying energy with the first word of its Surely He hath borne our grief, and latterly Muffett tackled his Behold, I tell you a mystery with a sense of suspended drama before plunging with considerable attack along with solo trumpet Paul Archibald into The trumpet shall sound.
This was one of the most satisfying Messiahs I've heard in recent years, a credit to John Lubbock for his wind transcription work, his pacing of the piece on the podium, his pruning of some of Handel's repetitions and his skill in picking his soloists. An all-round delight.