Handel, Messiah


Occasionally, a concert comes along in which every element comes together in some sort of divine perfection, creating a transcendent experience for the audience.  Instruments of Time and Truth’s (IT&T) performance of the Messiah was just one of those concerts.

Baroque orchestra, IT&T, perform the Messiah every year at Christmas time, at the beautiful University Church in Oxford. This is the fourth year in a row I’ve attended and the first year I’m reviewing. To me, the Christmas magic doesn’t start until hearing this.

From the opening chords of the Sinfonia, the words and music of Handel seemed particularly germane for our sombre times here in the UK; words of much needed hope and comfort sung by choir, Oxford Consort of Voices, and four extraordinary soloists.  At this performance, I found a much greater sense of connection to the libretto partly due to the extraordinary diction and expression of each soloist.   Three of the soloists, James Hall (countertenor), Nick Pritchard (tenor) and James Geidt (bass), are early career artists, and future stars.  Soprano, Claire Booth,  is a well-established star of international renown.

All four singers enunciated the libretto with such clarity, expression and extraordinary audience eye contact, that every word was clearly intelligible.  So, when Claire Booth sang, “Fear not; for behold I bring you tidings of great joy”, she had such a huge smile on her face, seemingly looking each audience member in the eye, that once couldn’t help becoming completely swept up in the excitement.  Similarly, when James Hall sang “He was despised and rejected”, his expression left no doubt about how he felt about the whole situation.

While James Geidt doesn’t yet have the foundation rumbling bass voice that sends vibrations up through the soles of your feet, the purity of the sound he produced meant that, for once, I was able to understand every word of the bass libretto.

The Oxford Consort of Voices, a relatively new choir made up of alumni from Oxford’s collegiate choirs, sang with glorious precision.  At the end of the “His yoke is easy” chorus, the dramatic decrescendo and the perfection of 18 singers finishing the “t” in “his burthen is light” in exact synchrony was pure pleasure.

Rather ironically for a Baroque performance, this attention to the audience experience, meant that Handel’s words felt contemporary and immediate.

The performance of the IT&T musicians themselves was, as usual, consistently and precisely beautiful, in complete sympathy with the choir and soloists. When the Baroque trumpets popped up on the top level, heralding the “Glory to God in the highest” chorus, it felt like the party to the glory of God had really started.  The trumpeters, Stephen Cutting and Robet Vanryne, deserve praise for the beautiful job they did in creating the celebratory feel. Using Baroque trumpets with what looked to me like only one valve, they gave the audience a bit of a thrill every time they played – which doesn’t necessarily happen with modern trumpets and their reliable intonation.  Another musician who deserves praise was cellist, Gabriel Amhurst, who seemed to be the only cello and played the entire cello part with a sweet mellow sound, essentially solo.

Everything came together in this beautiful performance. So much so, that even the loud police siren passing during the, “He was despised and rejected” aria, made the reality of being despised very immediate and helped draw parallels to others in our society that are now being despised and rejected.

Each year, this beautiful performance starts at 5pm. This means that it is child friendly and allows you to fully partake in the experience without that sheer mental exhaustion that can descend later in the evening after a long and stressful working week.

My one observation of regret is this.  The audience of this most special performance was so incredibly homogenous that I understood that for some reasons, most of which have nothing to do with IT&T, this performance of the Messiah largely remains the exclusive and privileged preserve of older white people who have money to spare on tickets.  As I said, this is not IT&T’s fault and I know that IT&T does a lot of work in communities and schools.

Whatever the solution, everybody should have the chance to share in this beautiful experience.