Messiah has undergone a vast rethink over the last half century, from monumental performances under Sir Malcolm Sargent to original instrument, pared-down editions of exceptional lightness and speed.
What is a local choir to do when approaching a work at once so familiar and yet so challenging? John Langridge, directing Battle Choral Society, seems to have gone for a mean average, taking the strengths from a range of approaches and moulding them into an enjoyable whole. To take the most recent thinking first. Although there was no harpsichordist on the day, Nigel Howard’s exemplary organ continuo set a tone for early-music style which was engaging and entirely appropriate. We could hear the continual gently ornamented accompaniment which mirrored that of the soloists and enhanced their own readings. His playing brought a freshness and vitality to tempi which were often on the slow side.
The four soloists, of whom tenor Gary Marriott came the closest to any real Georgian sensitivity, used ornaments freely and with obvious enthusiasm. Their voices carried easily in the warm acoustic of St Mary’s church though it was a pity they were positioned so far to the north side that many of the audience would not have been able to see them.
The choral singing became more confident as the evening progressed, with the triple chorus – Surely / And With His Stripes / All We Like Sheep – finding them at their most positive. They coped very well with Worthy Is The Lamb and gave us a rousing Amen. Here they were aided by the splendid trumpet playing of Andrew Baxter and Dean Pelling as well as timpanist John Davies.
As noted, tempi throughout tended to be on the slow side though bass Michael White’s For behold, darkness was surprisingly fast and there were occasional hints of the dance rhythms which actually underpin Handel’s score. Once you have heard the Pifa – the pastoral symphony – played at dance-speed underpinned as if by a hurdy-gurdy you can never hear it any other way!
The next concert will be Bach’s St Matthew Passion on October 19 2019. Two orchestras, three choirs plus soloists – we look forward in expectation. By Brian Hick.
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