Many people have triggers to make them feel seasonal, and this evening’s concert was no doubt a source for many audience members. Festive cheer spread around Bristol’s Colston Hall for an evening of joyous music celebrating the Christmas story with Handel’s Messiah. We have to thank librettist Charles Jennens for giving Handel the inspiration to write such powerful and emotive music as this epic piece, written in just 24 days. Christmas in the classical music world would not be complete without the well-known Hallelujah Chorus or “For unto us a child is born”. Every year, Handel’s fantastic oratorio has been loved dearly since its first performance in April 1742 in Dublin. For this particular concert, soloists joined the Bristol Choral Society and Music for Awhile.
This is the first production of the Messiah that I have witnessed where the choir wasn’t performing with scores. The entire 151-strong Bristol Choral Society not only gave a fabulous performance and looked smart on stage, but also mastered every intricate scale and canon off by heart. The timings were spot on under the baton of Adrian Partington, who kept the whole performance neat and to the point, yet full of vitality in its celebration of life. His choral experience was reflected in this masterful rendition, though he did seem to have a trouble at times with the choir getting up and sitting down in the middle of solos. Nonetheless, the chorus parts certainly stood out as the most impactful particularly in the climactic “Glory to God in the highest”, which would not have been complete without the two trumpeters (Neil Brough and Stephen Cutting) entrancing from a side door at the side of the stage to play.
The patience and enthusiasm of the solo vocalists sat at the front of the stage was admirable. So often one goes to a concert and sees the soloists sitting at the front and looking like they are waiting for the doctor, but not in this concert. Soprano Mary Nelson sat and engaged with the audience and looked enthused and full of musical energy, despite not being required to sing until “Rejoice greatly” at the end of Part One – and what a voice she has. Up until this part of the Messiah, the soloists had all been male which made her voice all the more striking. That being said, countertenor James Neville had an exceptionally beautiful voice. He sung with heart and gave a moving rendition of “He was despised”.
Handel’s Messiah has a pastoral symphony in Part One which provides a musical interlude between the texts of the prophecy and the Gospel. In this piece, it was possible as a listener to delve deeper into the dynamics and subtlety of the chamber group. The sound was clear, the harmonies functional and to the point. The dynamics and were in keeping with the era of the music. Harpsichordist Warwick Cole persisted through the continuo relentlessly, keeping that never-ending driving force flowing through all three parts of the Messiah, which gave the melodies the propulsion to roll into one another. Despite being a challenging part, what with the stamina required, he played with grace and elegance on a harpsichord built by his father. Music for Awhile are fantastic to watch.
This was an absorbing and thoroughly entertaining evening. It was as though Colston Hall had been wrapped in a giant ribbon for what can only be described as a Christmas present come early.