For this year’s Messiah, Sage Gateshead and Royal Northern Sinfonia teamed up with the musical charity Samling, bringing together soloists from the long-established Samling Scholars programme, which supports a selected group of emerging singers at the start of their careers, and participants of Samling Academy, a newer scheme for younger singers based the in North East who are preparing for music college.

Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia © Dan Brady
Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia
© Dan Brady
The Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia’s chorusmaster Alan Fearon stepped out from his usual role behind the scenes to conduct: I was told by a member of the choir that after years of preparing the choir for Messiahs with other conductors, he was relishing the opportunity to do things his way this time. Fearon tried to take a gentle approach, saving the full force of his singers for just a few key moments, but he reined them in too much. Some of the big choruses, particularly in the first part, were lacking in direction and energy and Handel’s spiky dotted rhythms were smoothed out to the point of dullness in the overture and “Behold the Lamb of God”. Although the choral singing was as immaculate as ever, the quiet passages were never really allowed to grow and blossom. I wondered at first whether the staging was to blame, because instead of being in the chorus seats they were on a low riser right behind the orchestra (sadly, with tacky illuminated snowflakes on the wall behind them), but when the chorus were let off the leash, things got much more exciting; “Surely he has borne our grief” was an electric jolt of power, and “He trusted in God” was thrillingly fast and vicious. One movement where the quieter approach did work well was “All we like sheep”, in which steep diminuendos on the falling phrases brought back the sense of remorse that is often overlooked in this chorus.

The Samling Scholar tenor Joshua Owen Mills began with a commanding performance of “Comfort ye”, with crisp diction and bright tone, and his “Thou shalt break them” was tense and dramatic. Bass Ben McAteer threw himself into the long semiquaver passages in “Thus saith them Lord”, creating a huge sound. Mezzo Helen Sherman was never loud, but the clarity of her voice carried well, and she bloomed in the lower part of the register, particularly in “He was despised”. She sang the slow sections of “But who may abide” with regret, rather than fear, but simmered with indignation as she spat out the second section of “He was despised”. Soprano Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson gave a warm and full-hearted performance of “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, and I loved all of her ornamented final cadences, but where she shone was in “Rejoice greatly”. She sang this aria with a real jubilance; her runs were perfectly shaped, which gave them direction and made them truly exciting to listen to and she added some ecstatic high notes into her da capo.

Naturally, the four Samling Scholars took the biggest solo arias, but the younger Academy members were given one significant aria each, as well as several recitatives. Bass Nicholas Morton sang “The people that walked in darkness” with a lovely rich, low timbre and beautiful phrasing and the preceding recitative, one of my personal favourite moments in Messiah was suitably dark and brooding. Mezzo Polly Leech has a chocolatey rich lower range, but the orchestra needed to have given her a bit more space in her solos. Alexander Banfield’s “Thy rebuke” and “Behold and see” were steeped in heartfelt melancholy. He also had the job of delivering one of Alan Fearon’s bolder changes – the tenor solo version of “Their sound is gone out”. I have to confess to being a little grumpy about not getting the lovely chorus version that is often unjustly cut, but it was interesting to hear this alternative. Soprano Rowan Pierce has a bright but rich sound, and great musicality. Her “Come unto me” was meltingly beautiful and her recitative passages were vividly expressive.

Like the chorus, Royal Northern Sinfonia added lots of exciting colour when they had the chance. Crisp, resonant playing from the double basses gave good depth, without muddiness, to “Hallelujah” and to the declamatory sections of “For unto us”, but the star of the orchestra was undoubtedly trumpeter Richard Martin. High above the other performers, for “Glory to God”, he and his colleague Marion Craig filled the hall with delicate colour, and he stepped out of the orchestra to join Ben McAteer for “The trumpet shall sound”. He made a lovely cool and very quiet contrast when duetting with the singer, and broadened out through exquisitely controlled crescendos into exuberant solo passages: sometimes I find this aria overlong, but on this occasion I was enjoying it so much that wished they had done the da capo.

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