To get straight to the point, Royal Northern Sinfonia’s Messiah this year was a decidedly odd affair. There were flashes of brilliance and imagination from guest conductor Reinhard Goebel but it took some time for the orchestra, soloists and chorus to get behind his very distinctive vision for performing Handel’s oratorio.

Reinhard Goebel © Christina Bleier
Reinhard Goebel
© Christina Bleier

Although the whole performance came in at the standard length of just under three hours, it seemed at first that we were in for a long night: Goebel’s overture loped along at a refreshingly sensible walking pace, with a luxurious sound in the strings, a strong sense of purpose and some interesting emphases in the phrasing. The next few movements went somewhat awry as all the singers seemed uncomfortable with the speeds: the first chorus movement, “And the Glory of the Lord” was clearly intended to be stately, but it came across as sulky and unenthusiastic. Fortunately things improved as the evening developed, and by the end of the Part One the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia had whipped up a beautifully light soufflé for “His yoke is easy”.

What became apparent, particularly in the arias, was that Goebel’s approach to Messiah was driven firstly by the music and its underlying dance rhythms, with the words taking second place. Instead of a slow emotional outpouring, “He was despised” went at a brisk pace, with a strong weighting on the first beat of each bar and “The people that walked in darkness” danced along, particularly in the orchestra – I enjoyed these immensely as pieces of music but I felt that this came at the expense of narrative coherence.

One of the most startlingly original moments of this performance was the alto aria “But who may abide”. Instead of the furiously raging flames that we usually hear, Goebel used the orchestra to create a smouldering furnace, full of dark menace, with occasional tongues of fire flickering up in heavy, unexpected accents. However, countertenor Christopher Lowrey’s ornamentation didn’t really match this slow burn, which was a pity. The aria where Lowrey really shone was “Thou art gone up on high” in which he gave a flamboyant performance, with particularly dramatic high notes.

Soprano Deborah York sang “Rejoice Greatly” with sparkling precision and although her voice sounded brittle at times, she added a lovely glow to the long runs. She sang “I know that my Redeemer liveth” with quiet conviction, with stretched-out vowels that allowed her line to float above a spacious accompaniment. Tenor Nicholas Mulroy had an enjoyable round tone that suddenly broke into surprising venom as he spat out the words for “Thou shalt break him” – and the violins matched him here for ferocity. Callum Thorpe’s bass was exciting to listen to, full of power and depth; it was his first aria, “Thus says the Lord” with its long melismas on the word “shake” that really got this performance under way. His tiny little recitative “Behold I tell you a mystery” was filled with awe and was one of my favourite moments of the evening. He perhaps didn’t pace himself though because by the time he got to “The trumpet shall sound” there were a few rough edges to his tone. Richard Martin’s trumpet solo here was of his usual high standard, breathlessly long lines, and nicely shaded dynamics.

Under their new chorus master Hugh Brunt, the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia has undergone quite a few changes of membership and this was the first time I’d heard them in their new formation. The immaculately clean execution was unchanged, with impressively crisp runs in the fast choruses, but I felt that the sopranos in particular were a little thin – their top notes came through like lasers but the line lacked depth. It was a treat to hear Royal Northern Sinfonia performing Messiah without any cuts this year, and the chorus made the most of having the chance to sing “Their sound is gone out”, giving it a lovely bell-like resonance. The first unaccompanied phrase of “Since by man came death” was a beautiful lesson in how to produce a really silky legato sound.

There were some movements where everything suddenly clicked in this Messiah. “Why do the Nations” and the following “Let us break their bonds” fizzed with real Handelian energy, and the two big choral set-pieces “Hallelujah”, and final chorus were an absolute joy. “Hallelujah” bounced along with a beautifully Baroque pulse and exciting little explosions from the brass and timps. The lift and bounce of “Hallelujah” returned for “Blessing and honour” and, after a slightly uncertain start, for the final “Amen”. The tenors and basses really drove this last chorus onwards, and Marney O’Sullivan stole the show in the final bars with his exuberant timpani flourishes: I’m sure he adds a few more rolls to it every year.