One of the things that I love about Handel’s music is the way that it throbs with vitality and energy; at its best it’s an intoxicating, heady brew that often makes me wonder whether there should be legal limits to how much we can take of it in one go. Sadly this is often lost in performances of Messiah, the weight of tradition and public adoration watering it down to something like an insipid cup of over-milky tea. There was no danger of milky tea this evening through, as Paul McCreesh took Royal Northern Sinfonia and their chorus on a highly charged and dramatic ride with a Messiah that owed much to the operas that made Handel’s reputation.

Samuel Boden © Robert Bridgens
Samuel Boden
© Robert Bridgens

The Handelian energy was there right from the overture; after a light, spacious opening, McCreesh whipped the orchestra into a tightly delicate fugue that set the tone for the big choruses: fast but always feeling energetic and lively, rather than rushed. It’s easy to overlook the orchestra in Messiah; apart from the trumpet, there are no big solos, but throughout this performance, McCreesh kept the instruments as equal partners with the singers and brought out some nice details like the bleak little bit of oboe in the Adagio at the end of “All we like sheep” and some particularly spiky violin writing in “Thou art gone up on high”. Harpsichordist Julian Perkins created dramatic tension in some of the recitatives, particularly with soprano Mhairi Lawson in the movements describing the angels appearing to the shepherds.

The four soloists made their contribution to the operatic element of this Messiah by providing a strong sense of the narrative thread that is hidden behind librettist Charles Jennens’s somewhat cryptic collection of Biblical texts. The only thing that spoilt this a bit for me was the decision to perform the soprano version of “But who may abide”. Mhairi Lawson sang it with plenty of fire, but my feeling in Messiah is that the soprano is the angelic bringer of good news, with the earthier emotions reserved for a richer alto voice. However, with so many performance variations available for Messiah, it’s probably impossible to please everyone all the time. Lawson’s light, agile voice was perfect for the ecstatic soprano arias: “Rejoice greatly” exuded pure, uncomplicated happiness and “I know that my Redeemer liveth” was quietly serene, and sung with a smile.

Handel uses the alto and tenor solos to express the deepest grief in the story of Christ, and counter-tenor James Laing and tenor Samuel Boden both gave movingly expressive performances. James Laing’s “He was despised” was an intimate battle with grief and bewilderment, supported by beautifully phrased interjections from the orchestra before the chorus burst in with “Surely he has born our griefs”. Samuel Boden set the dramatic tone of the whole performance, his heroic “Every valley” bursting out of an achingly sad “Comfort ye”. I enjoyed his crisp clean runs, particularly in “Thou shalt break them”.

Laing and Boden blended beautifully in the oratorio’s only true vocal duet “O death, where is thy sting!” but the other big duet is “The trumpet shall sound” and Richard Martin, standing out at the front with baritone Benjamin Bevan made his trumpet truly sing. Sometimes I find this aria goes on a bit, but the musical partnership here was so enjoyable that I gave a little inner cheer when I realised they were doing the full da capo version.

The real stars of the evening were the singers of the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia. With Paul McCreesh taking the choruses at the sort of breakneck speeds you’d expect when there are only a couple of singers on each part, the precision and technique the choir displayed on the semi-quavers in choruses such as “For unto us” and “All we like sheep” was impressive. But it wasn’t just about clean singing: the choir were fizzing with energy right the way through to the last “Amen”, not just in the funky punch of rhythmic choruses like “He trusted in God” but also in the slower, quieter passages. The solid, slow introduction to “Worthy is the Lamb” was full of pent up power, like a plane revving its engines on a runway before exploding in a thrilling burst of chorus, trumpet and timpani. The final “Amen” was as fresh and vivid as “And the glory of the Lord”, particularly in the beautifully rounded quiet singing – hard to achieve at the end of a long exhausting sing. Paul McCreesh’s daringly long pause for the final notes suggested that he was enjoying himself as much as the singers. And “Hallelujah” was so jubilant and buoyant and throbbing with bass that I took advantage of the traditional audience stand to have a little dance.