Review of Handel's Messiah at Tsuen Wan Town Hall by St John's Voices, Cambridge
St John’s Voices, Messiah, GF Handel, 18 December 2016, Auditorium, Tsuen Wan Town Hall, Hong Kong.
Messiah was composed in 1741-2, about thirty years after Handel putatively left his employer, the Elector of Hanover, somewhat in the lurch to pursue life in the more cosmopolitan city of London. Had the composer studied royal genealogy a little more closely at the time, he would have realised that the successor to King George I in 1727 was to be none other than the, now rather miffed, Elector of Hanover. At least, that’s the legend supported by Handel’s first biographer Mainwaring.
Whatever happened, Handel’s genius restored him to royal favour, but the composer’s principal interest, Italian Opera, never really appealed to the Protestant English public. Oratorio, with large choruses and fewer flamboyant solos, usually uses Biblical themes, and this was far more suited to the conservative taste of Handel’s new constituency. However, every phrase of Messiah betrays Handel’s Italian operatic background and his unsurpassed genius for musical drama.
Messiah has no clear narrative, but sets selected Biblical texts in three parts: prophesies concerning the Messiah from the Old Testament, the life of Jesus, and His Second Coming. This loose structure makes it too easy to lose momentum in performance, but Graham Walker with his young choir and soloists from St John’s College, Cambridge, maintained dramatic integrity from the first note until the last. Soloists sat with the choir the workmoved along at an exciting pace, as it would in an opera. The small forces of The Cambridge Baroque Camerata delivered some thrilling string playing in accompanied recitatives and the choral blend was consistently very good.
There was some magnificent, expressive singing from bass soloist Jonathan Hyde, and tenor Sam Oladeinde seemed to manage the awkward leaps that describe valleys and hills in the first aria effortlessly. Soprano Billie Robson held the audience spellbound in the aria ‘How beautiful are the feet’, and alto Alice Webster’s naturally sweet voice lent a delightfully naïve pathos to the recitative ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened’. However, she did not quite match the ferocity of the strings in ‘He gave his back to the smiters’.
Although Messiah has become a staple of amateur choral societies, there are some very challenging moments for the choir; the notorious melismatic passages in ‘For Unto Us’, for example, were superbly executed. However, I felt that there was, perhaps, a little too much restraint in the first part. This student choir shares the liturgical work of the Chapel Choir at St John’s College. Oratorio is a different beast from church music and it calls for a different sound, so I found myself occasionally willing this choir to loosen up a bit, which they seemed to do after the Pastoral Sypmphony.
The famous choruses ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Worthy is The Lamb’ were wonderfully rendered and we filed back out onto the streets of Tsuen Wan with the words of St John(appropriately enough) ringing in our ears, feeling that we had enjoyed a deeply enriching, sincerely spiritual journey in the company of these outstanding young musicians. Bravo!
Wright, MA (Cantab. - Music), M.Mus (London), Director of Music, The British School of Guangzhou.