Handel and the Huddersfield Choral Society go way back, and their union is probably listed somewhere in the Old Testament. As you might expect, their first Handel performance was Messiah as early as 1836, but Israel in Egypt (composed in 1739) followed swiftly and, since its first performance by the HCS in 1837, they have given it a further 25 times, tonight’s performance being (in total) the 27th and the first since 1988. This oratorio in particular is popular with large choruses as it is the choral element that dominates the work – recitatives, arias and duets are few and far between.

Huddersfield Choral Society
Huddersfield Choral Society

Before you are served with the meat of this review, I would like to pose a simple question of Scholarship vs. Tradition, and I hope the HCS will indulge me as a devoted supporter, (rather than a fussy scholar), as I know they do not like their traditions challenged – if you don’t stand for Messiah’s “Hallelujah” chorus, you will promptly be escorted from the Town Hall and shot (or at least severely chastised by surrounding members of HCS’s steadfast audience who at one time would have queued around the Town Hall to get a Messiah ticket, whatever the weather). Israel in Egypt is an oratorio in three parts: “The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph”, “Exodus”, and “Moses’ Song”, but for many years “The Lamentation” was lost (Handel’s autograph and performing scores consisting only of the latter parts), and consequently the oratorio was mistakenly given as a two-part work. However, “The Lamentation” has since been found, restored to its rightful place, recorded seven times, and the oratorio performed in its complete form since 1985 – why, then, did tonight’s performance begin with “Exodus” when the whole work is available for performance? A dedicated Handelian, I could easily forgive this diminished performance if a) it was perhaps a nod to the days of the 19th-century Handel festivals at the Crystal Palace with the choir numbers exceeding all the company of heaven, a huge orchestra to boot, and the first part still lost, or b) the performance had been perfect. But it wasn’t.

With no overture or opening chorus (which, obviously, belong to the omitted “Lamentation”), the performance began with the tenor recitative “Now there arose a new king”, and soloist Stuart Jackson exposed himself as the most accomplished singer – a rich voice, comfortable across his whole register, and a dramatic interpreter of words and music, he was the only soloist who hinted at basic Baroque conventions of melodic decoration and actually making something of the text. The remaining five soloists left much to be desired, all simply singing the notes written on the page with seemingly little capacity for vocal quality or thought for dramatic emphasis, vocal ornamentation or colouring of the words, ample opportunity for which Handel delivers on a silver platter.

For the HCS this is a big sing and 28 out of 36 movements performed were for chorus; several of them required rather more musical subtlety than the HCS could produce. The opening, extremely wordy chorus “And their cry” was musically sound – all the notes were there – but the words were often completely lost in Handel’s unusually dense texture, and this movement more than most is an excellent advocate for smaller forces in baroque music. What the HCS lack in subtlety, however, they more than make up for in sheer collective vocal strength, power and volume, and the closing double chorus “Sing ye to the Lord” was impressive in terms of the wall of sound that shook the Town Hall foundations. Musical director Jane Glover however might have produced a more varied performance if this mighty Huddersfield fortissimo had been employed with greater restraint – by the time we made it to the final chorus, we had already experienced the alarming thrust of this vocal army's force a number of times in preceding choruses.

Enthusiastically encouraged by Glover, the Royal Northern Sinfonia were generally excellent in balance and string dexterity in movements with lighter choral scoring, though it is a pity that the choral zeal often vastly outweighed the instrumental forces, and they were frequently overpowered: why have a Baroque-sized orchestra if you have a 19th-century sized choir?

Though I personally feel that this performance presented a myriad of musical problems (which surprises me, given that Jane Glover is an early music expert), including performance edition, soloists, and size of orchestra vs. that of the choir, it is nonetheless always an exciting experience to hear such a mighty choir, though I feel their gifts for volume and choral weight are better suited to 19th- and 20th-century works designed for choirs of this size. I am eagerly looking forward to their forthcoming performances of Poulenc’s Gloria and Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony next Spring.

***11