REVIEW BY Mark Hartt-Palmer
For many, Christmas would not be complete without hearing Handel’s ever-popular Messiah, whether it be live or recorded. A packed audience in Chichester Cathedral were treated to a performance of the oratorio, given by the Chichester Singers and Southern Pro Musica, conducted by Jonathan Willcocks. Just as the first performance in The New Music Hall, Dublin, in 1742 was an unqualified success, so was this!
From the opening of the Sinfonia, Southern Pro Musica established themselves as a fine ensemble in all dynamic ranges, from the sotto voce accompaniment of For behold, darkness shall cover the earth to the sparkling Hallelujah chorus. There was some fine playing by trumpeter Frazer Tannock in The trumpet shall sound, and some excellent continuo accompaniment from David Burrowes (cello) and Richard Barnes (organ). Intonation from unison 1st and 2nd violins employed by Handel in some items was spot on.
The Chichester Singers were in fine fettle throughout, and some fast tempi set by conductor Jonathan Willcocks did not throw them at all. They made light work of difficult choruses such as His yoke is easy and projected the meaning of the more poignant items of Part 2 (which focusses on Christ’s death).
Soprano soloist Bibi Heal (well-known to audiences in Chichester) sung with a purity of tone, navigating the more florid passages in Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion with total control, whilst I know that my redeemer liveth was one of the most moving performances I’ve heard.
Contralto Rosanna Cooper, after a slight lack of projection in her opening solo, soon settled into her stride and He was despised was sung with beauty and clarity.
Tenor Matthew Long adopted a more operatic approach than the other soloists, and one could argue that this was a valid interpretation to take, considering that Handel was an operatic composer at heart (the composer turned to oratorio to revive his financial difficulties caused through the escalating costs of staging his operas, as well as dwindling audiences).
Thomas Humphreys’ bass arias were consistently good, showing some excellent technique in the demands of Why do the nations, with controlled, expressive singing in Behold, I tell you a mystery.
Jonathan Willcocks must have conducted Messiah on very many occasions over the years, yet his approach to the work was as fresh as if he was conducting the work for the first time. With a chorus of over 100, he was not afraid to push the tempo in some items: this gave them a real sparkle.
With resplendent Hallelujah and Amen choruses, the audience will have gone away knowing that the Christmas celebrations were well and truly under way!