In 1784, 25 years after Handel’s death, a Mr Bates directed from the organ a performance of The Messiah in Westminster Abbey at which the orchestra numbered 250 and there were 60 sopranos, 50 male altos, 82 tenors and c. 90 basses. Imposingly spacious though the Church of St Mary the Virgin is, I was grateful that Eboracum (the Roman name for York, since you ask) Baroque had arrived in Oxford with somewhat more modest forces – in fact an orchestra of 6, playing instruments authentic to the period, and choir of 14, with the soloists democratically plucked from it. And there’s authenticity in this platoon to Mr Bates’ army, since Handel himself, in Dublin at the first performance on 13th April 1742, directed a choir made up of –accounts vary – something like 14 men and 6 boys.
St Mary the Virgin was not an ideal venue on Saturday night, being cold and draughty and offering all the cosiness of Birmingham bus station with sleet coming down. Many of the audience were huddled in coats and mufflers, and grateful if they had hats and gloves as well, and the promised candlelight experience was candlelight-lite in that the upper storey and roof electric lights detracted from the effect by unnecessarily beaming down on the proceedings.
So there’s plenty of leeway and tradition for both the little and the big approach, but what’s not negotiable is the necessity for an intensity of performance that pays homage to the burst of creativity that poured out of the composer over 23 days and nights, with barely a pause for food or sleep, in the late summer of 1741. I’ve attended too many Messiahs where the soloists have failed in respect of one or other of two simple questions asked of them: have their voices filled every last cubic centimetre of the venue’s space, and have they sung the moving libretto as if they really meant it?
Well, in the second respect I thought Eboracum Baroque’s bunch of soloists did, with a couple of exceptions, interpret the story with feeling and lyricism. Two of the sopranos, Naomi Sturges and Ruth McElvanney, stood out with a pleasing, rich tone and expressive cadences, but a couple of the altos struggled with the lower reaches of their register and did fail that audibility test. It was especially disappointing that the soprano entrusted at the start of Part 3 with I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, after all the very heart of the oratorio with its words that sum up the essence of the Christian message, was palpably not up to the job*. But the male soloists did well, as did the tiny orchestra, and how pleasant that the harpsichord continuo - played with gusto by Marie Van Rhijn - rang out loud and clear instead of being, as so often, reduced to a background hum by massed choir and strings.
Eboracum’s founder and director Chris Parsons conducted with energy. I thought the opening sinfonia and Comfort Ye My People were taken too slowly, but subsequent tempi were sufficiently brisk, and it was surprising how much vim he injected into the Hallelujah chorus, given his limited resources. The addition at this point of a couple of excellent period trumpets - and later on, timpani - breathed extra life into the proceedings. This was especially apparent in the final part, with the hymn of praise Worthy is the Lamb filling the nave and aisles and culminating in the tour de force Amen, the fugal entries like a curtain call, showcasing section by section of this compact but accomplished choir.
* Editor's note: we were very sorry to hear that the soloist in question was unwell on the night of the performance.