Monday 7 September 2009

Prom 68

Sunday evening was Handel's Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall, sung by a choir of some 260 young people from the CBSO Youth Chorus, Halle Youth Choir, National Youth Choir of Great Britain, National Youth Choir of Wales, Quay Voices, RSCM Millennium Youth Choir and Scunthorpe Co-operative Junior Choir. They were accompanied by the Northern Sinfonia, conducted by Nicholas McGegan.

Now Messiah is a virtually indestructible work and will take any amount of performance styles. Having so many young people sing the piece at the Albert Hall was a great opportunity and the singers made a fabulous, light, clear choral sound. Vocally and musically they were a great testament to the hard work put in by themselves and their various choir trainers.

Now up to around 50 years ago, a choir of 260 would have been accompanied by an orchestra of comparable size. The Handel centenary celebrations at the end of the 18th century all used mammoth forces, but with the size of the orchestra multiplied up to balance the choral forces. Now, 260 young people do not quite make the same amount of noise as 260 adults, but the Northern Sinfonia, which fielded around 50 players, was rather too small a group to accompany the choir.

For much of the time, McGegan got light, bright singing from the choristers and the balance varied from poor to adequate. But at the bigger moments the choral sound threatened to overwhelm the orchestra. McGegan finally admitted defeat when, for the Halleluja Chorus and the final choruses in Part 3, the Albert Hall organ was added to the mix, thus providing the choir with adequate support.

It is a shame that what could have been an amazing performance, was to a certain extent marred by the decision not to expand the Northern Sinfonia; having another 25 or 30 players would have made a great deal of difference.

The soloists were Dominque Labelle, Patricia Bardon, John Mark Ainsley and Matthew Rose. Labelle had a rather darker, richer voice than I am used to in this piece and there were times when I missed the purity that Emma Kirkby (or Isobel Bailey) could bring to the part. Bardon was often rather earnest, though beautiful in her own way; there were times when she sounded as if she was singing one of Handel's more butch operatic trouser roles rather than one of the great mezzo-soprano parts. Her account of He was Despised was musical and earnest rather than moving. Ainsley was musical and impressive, but had not quite got the hang of the Albert Hall acoustic. He sounded rather distant at times. Matthew Rose was the singer who impressed most. He had the measure of the acoustic and contributed a musical and moving performance, The Trumpet Shall Sound was particularly impressive.

One other little annoyance. The orchestra included a harpsichord and a large chamber organ, all very correct. The harpsichord was rather too small in timbre for the space, and for much of the time McGegan used the organ as continuo as well during quite a few of the arias, which was something Handel never did - harpsichord for arias, organ for choruses except for the occasions when he made specific requirements. His solution for larger scale was, I believe, to have more than one harpsichord.

Nothing can take away the wonderful sound of this young choir, their commitment to the music and the performance or their enthusiasm both during the performance and after. This shouldn't be a one-off event, and I hope that we get to hear a similar combination of choirs again another year, but next time please give them an accompanying ensemble of the right size.


  1. Anonymous1:37 am

    As a member of the chorus I have to say that although your comments on the chorus itself are appreciated, I would have to disagree with your views on balance. The sinfonia were frequently asked to play much more quietly in rehearsals as it quickly became clear that if they played at their normal volume they would overwhelm the choir, despite our number. This was again reiterated during our rehearsal in the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday morning, and although I have heard many comments from audience members and read numerous other reviews I have not come across anyone else who has been critical of the balance. Although you are, of course, entitled to your opinion!

  2. I am rather amazed because, frankly, from our seat in the stalls the chorus easily came near to overwhelming the orchestra. Often the oboes were inaudible and in moments like 'Wonderful, counsellor' the upper strings were reduced to a thin sound. Only the orchestra bass line was resilient, providing strong support throughout. The other critical reactions have not mentioned this, so I can only assume that my views on the balance needed in the pieces don't match other people's.


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