Since its first performance in 1742, Handel's Messiah has become one of the world's most popular and widely performed oratorios. With a biblical libretto which tells the story of Jesus from the Nativity to the Ascension, and stunning, joyous choral parts that lend themselves equally well to small and large choirs, the Messiah has become a festive must-hear. In fact, for many lovers of classical music, Christmas just wouldn't be the same without it.

Countertenor Andrew Radley, © Ben Harte
Countertenor Andrew Radley,
© Ben Harte

On Saturday evening, Leeds Town Hall was treated to a glorious performance of the piece by the celebrated Leeds Festival Chorus, the English Chamber Orchestra and four wonderful soloists. Tenor Benjamin Hulett (a choral scholar of New College Oxford and a graduate of the Guildhall School of Music) began the proceedings with a pretty and precise recitative and aria (“Ev'ry valley shall be exalted”) which was in strong contrast to the rich tone and powerful projection of Royal Opera House stalwart Eddie Wade, who brought great strength and depth to the three bass arias. Soprano Joanne Lunn was no less impressive, filling the high-ceilinged Town Hall with her sparkly, songbird-like vocals. Her “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” was particularly lovely.

The outstanding performance of the evening, however, was delivered by countertenor Andrew Radley. A graduate of the Royal College of Music, Radley specialises in operatic roles written for the alto castrato voice and is particularly at home with Handel, having performed in a huge number of the composer's operas and oratorios. Even if you're not a fan of the countertenor voice, it would be hard to listen to Radley's beautiful, pure tone and not be impressed. Hearing his “But who may abide the day of his coming” was a bit like being transported to the 17th-century heyday of the castrati. As Messiah progressed, I found myself anticipating the alto arias and duets the most keenly. Radley and Hulett's voices blended particularly well on “O death, where is thy sting?”, creating a wonderfully harmonious baroque sound.

An oratorio such as Messiah is, however, ultimately about the strength of the chorus, and Leeds Festival Chorus performed the work with great beauty and gusto. Under the baton of Simon Wright, they managed to combine power and dramatic expression with precision and diction, booming out an upbeat Hallelujah Chorus and tackling the soft, quiet aspects of “Since by man came death” with atmosphere and sensitivity. As the final chorus part (“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain”) came to an end, it felt as if there had truly been a celebration of Handel's masterpiece. Which is exactly how it should feel.