I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sung Handel’s Messiah, always in the context of a large choral society or the massed voices of a ‘come and sing’. So it was a special treat to let someone else do the work, and an interesting contrast to have this familiar oratorio delivered by a smaller ensemble.

Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir
Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir

Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir was founded in 1998, adding female voices to the Cathedral’s musical forces for the first time in its long history. Under Stephen Shellard’s direction, the 36-strong choir was sensitively accompanied by thirteen musicians of Worcester Chamber Orchestra – just one instrument per part – and a quartet of soloists. This intimate company had its work cut out filling the glorious space of Worcester Cathedral, but by the same token the tighter ensemble made for more controlled light and shade, and when the big moments came they were especially dramatic.

Despite being more commonly aired at Christmas, Easter time is more appropriate for Messiah, reflecting its first performance in April 1742 in Dublin, and being an affirmation of the Christian faith. Handel wrote it in a bid to reverse his fortunes after a downturn in the popularity of his considerable operatic output, and he is said to have completed it within three weeks. The libretto was compiled by Charles Jennens, drawing on biblical texts and exploring not only the advent, birth, passion, death and resurrection of Christ, but also the spiritual legacy of his teachings. Partly due to a clever bit of PR, it was a big success in Dublin. It was a little slower to catch on in London, but really took hold in the 19th century with the nationwide establishment of amateur choral societies, who enjoy its richness and variety.

From the outset the orchestra demonstrated poise and balance. Tenor Wilhelm Theunissen then set the scene with clear emotion-charged diction, ushering in the choir’s entry ‘And the glory of the Lord’. It was clear the audience – not a full house, but enough to generate an appreciative response – needn’t worry about pitch or timing issues, as the singing was secure and confident. Fugue subjects in this and subsequent numbers were crisp, with commendable teamwork in the dynamics, which allowed each section to occupy the spotlight as and when required, and creating a lovely rich texture. The soloists all interpreted the story with feeling and lyricism, and with minimal reference to copies so that a connection with the audience was maintained. The alto line was sung by countertenor Sebastian Field, with a pleasing rich tone and expressive cadences, although I found the lower reaches of his register less audible. Tim Cox, a founder member of the choir, tackled the considerable challenges of the bass arias’ lengthy phrases with a resonant voice and comfortable stage presence. Sheila Davies, also a member of the choir, injected a sense of excitement and anticipation into the sequence that tells the shepherds’ story, and a sense of optimism in her pure, confident rendition of ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’.

Handel’s choruses, variously thought-provoking, exuberant, moving and life-affirming, gave impetus to the developing narrative. The choir sang ‘For unto us a child is born’ with a light touch, evoking a joyful mood, although they could have emphasised the thrilling line ‘Wonderful! Counsellor!’ by dwelling a little longer on the first syllables of the names to be bestowed upon the Messiah. They became more expressive in ‘Glory to God’, the building seeming to respond to the well-tuned sentiments of praise.

The choir was responsive to the call for dramatic contrasts, the slow tempo of ‘And with his stripes’ like a soothing balm following the aggression of ‘iniquities’ and ‘chastisement’ in the previous number. They achieved the necessary mocking tone in ‘He trusted in God’, although greater attention to consonants throughout would have added impact.

The basses were commanding in announcing, fanfare-like, ‘The Lord gave the word’, and excitement built with the cracking pace of ‘Let us break their bonds’, setting us up nicely for the Hallelujah Chorus. The addition at this point of timpani and a couple of excellent period trumpets breathed extra life into the proceedings. This was mirrored in the final part, with the hymn of praise ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ filling the vast space and culminating in the tour de force ‘Amen’, the fugal entries like a curtain call, showcasing section by section this compact but accomplished choir.