Review: Portsmouth Baroque Choir and the Consort of Twelve “Messiah” in Chichester

St Paul’s, Chichester, July 9

Handel, and Messiah in particular, is one of the Wonders of the Musical World. One can admire David Bowie but never love him as much as Marc Bolan, it has long seemed to me, and something similar applies to Bach and Handel. That is not to question Johann Sebastian’s majesterial pre-eminence among composers but Georg Friedrich had a gift of bringing with him a gloriousness that was all his own. Even that long-held cornerstone of my faith needs to be looked at again, though.

Messiah almost serves as a Greatest Hits on its own. It’s where I came in, concocting a form of words for a school choral society performance for the Gloucester Citizen circa 1976-7, and it’s been an essential ingredient of my, and countless other’s, musical DNA ever since, from the Solti LPs, the James Bowman CDs, his last performance of it in Portsmouth Cathedral a few years ago, and the ongoing sheer joy of the thing.

In the clean, light-filled space of St. Paul’s Church the beautifully organized sound was crystalline from the early woodwind and strings from the ever excellent Consort of Twelve in the Sinfonia and onwards as the soloists make their entrances, delaying the soprano until we finally arrive at the trumpets in Glory to God.

I won’t delay the verdict. It took me ten minutes to decide this was my Event of the Year and I’ll eat a few of my hats if anything displaces it before midnight on 31/12. It’s not obvious how to compare this colossal monument to a Shostakovich Piano Trio which was probably this year’s highlight so far, from the Menuhin Room series, and it’s about the ‘experience’ that one will remember more than anything technical or specific.

Tenor Tom Robson was immaculate in his Comfort Ye and throughout. Bass Jamie Woollard was powerful almost to the point of being intimidatory. Mezzo Charlotte Badham was rich. The performance was very fortunate to be able to secure the flawlesss soprano Charlotte Bowden as one of a few enforced last minute team changes.

The Consort made Unto us a child is born danceable, as much of the quicker tempi seemed to be on such a happy occasion. Always taken with Bach’s ambulatory bass lines as I am, All we like sheep was agile in the lower strings in an account that impressed time and again with its rhythm.

I’d have been most disappointed if we hadn’t stood at the appropriate time. One or two knew, the lady a few seats along from me made a move, we went for it together and the idea caught on. I realize that we stand because the king once did but by now, surely, we stand in respect of Handel who didn’t even think Hallelujah was his best effort at such a thing. Coming at the end of Part Two, it’s convenient to remain standing for a midway ovation and many did. It wouldn’t have taken much to provoke such a thing at the end of Part Three but that wasn’t quite to be.

This was a full Messiah with nothing left out, roughly 2hrs 45 mins, but what could be a marathon undertaking flies by. And in Part Three, which is shorter but not mercifully so, he’s saved up his ammunition to scale greater heights. Charlotte’s I know that my redeemer liveth was a soaring statement of supreme confidence, the trumpets did certainly sound before the other Charlotte and Tom combined on one of my very favourite bits, O death, where is thy sting? If I were to meet a cantankerous German in a wig in the next life and recognize him I might not have the nerve to tell him that where he went wrong in Messiah is that he didn’t put in enough duets or bigger combinations of soloists but I wish he had. We know he was perfectly capable.

The choir swept and swayed through two last choruses as they are always impressive at doing but don’t always have the most ultimately optimum material like this to do it with and then, as if the ornamentation, the orchestration and all the splendour hadn’t been quite enough, the maestro Georg, the maestro Malcolm Keeler, the Portsmouth Baroque Choir, the Consort of Twelve and the soloists added the most baroque Amen that makes one of Beethoven’s elongated big finishes seem almost abrupt in comparison.

That was sensational. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to take part in, and never will. It’s a good job that music locally, at least for me, takes a break now. There is simply no following that. The choir, especially those who are in other choirs, too, deserve a holiday. Thank you very much, all who took part, including the helpful, unsung, non-singing front of house people and the weather that so kindly accommodated the ‘Glyndebourne’ picnic in the interval between Parts 1 and 2. It might as well now rain until September.

David Green

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