The ideal Messiah performance requires just five elements: a fine chorus, well-prepared; soloists with attractive voices equal to the music’s demands; instrumentalists versed in the style of the era; a conductor who knows both score and performers so that close musical collaboration follows; and a venue suited to the work acoustically and spiritually. So, the Beckmesser in me put five stars at the top of my slate, and prepared to scratch them off as the infelicities accumulated, in yet another day-at-the-office seasonal trudge through a much-performed masterpiece.

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen
© Simon Jay Price

But we heard a realisation of Handel’s work that suggested it was written yesterday, and the performers were exhilarated revealing it to us, both because its message brings good news, and the work does justice to that theme. Messiah is both very popular and often underrated, and those facts are connected. How can so many delight so often in the sublimities and subtleties of this supreme art?

Those delights began with the opening Symphony, the strings buoyant in the bustling polyphony, the Baroque instruments played with dead-centre tuning – nowhere to hide with so few players – a pleasure in themselves. The prodigious piece of plumbing that trumpeter Robert Farley expertly deployed for “The trumpet shall sound” made one fear that indeed “the dead shall be raised”... right then and there!

James Newby’s singing of that number played its role too, as earlier in wondering “Why do the nations so furiously rage together”, with a wide dynamic range that never impaired his tone in forte passages. If Handel’s lowest notes lacked amplitude in his baritone voice, they were audible enough. Tenor Nick Pritchard was equally impressive, from his plangent opening “Comfort ye” and “Ev’ry valley” – ‘exalted’ indeed.

Countertenor Hugh Cutting used his pure tone and command of line well, both solo and singing with his tenor and soprano partners. The latter was Hilary Cronin, whose lovely ample voice could have dominated a nave three times the length of this one. Each of these fresh-voiced young soloists is highly skilled, notably agile in melismatic passages.

The flattering acoustic and intimacy of St Martin-in-the-Fields played its part, permitting nuanced soft singing and playing whenever required. The eighteen choral singers (The Sixteen are not doctrinaire about their famous name) were splendid, precise in fast music, sustaining line and tone in slow music, keeping sections balanced in the polyphonic moments.

Harry Christophers’ ballabile style of direction meant the music danced, and he clearly knew this expert team could manage a challenging tempo. Invigorating freshness was the hallmark of the whole performance, so it was surprising to read in the programme that Christophers has conducted Messiah two hundred times, mostly with The Sixteen. How did he summon that freshness and commitment? Bad luck for mean-spirited Beckmessers that on this 201st occasion, he got everything exactly right.