Thursday 9 December 2021

A story to tell: the new recording of Handel's Messiah from Eboracum Baroque

Handel Messiah; Eboracum Baroque, Chris Parsons

Handel Messiah; Eboracum Baroque, Chris Parsons

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 December 2021
Lithe and with a welcome attention to text and meaning, Messiah from this lively young professional baroque group proves a refreshing and engaging experience

Formed by Chris Parsons at the University of York in 2012, Eboracum Baroque has developed into a lively ensemble of young professional singers and instrumentalists, performing Baroque music both well-known and lesser-known with a strong interest in English composers from the period (and that doesn't just mean Purcell and Handel). Handel's Messiah has developed into an important annual event in the group's calendar, not just for the chance to perform the magnificent music but for the fact that significant audiences for the work bring in valuable income for a group very much dependent on box office.

2020 was, of course, different, and early on Chris Parsons took the decision not to attempt a series of socially distance performances of Messiah. In fact, during the various lock-downs the group was admirable in the way it kept performances together on-line (and out of doors when possible). As many groups have found, the events of 2020 meant taking advantage of sparser diaries, giving them the ability to bring performers together for special events.

So from 17-19 December 2020, the eleven singers and nine instrumentalists of Eboracum Baroque, plus conductor Chris Parsons got together at St Mary's Church, Swaffham Prior, and recorded Handel's Messiah, which is being released on the group's own label. The solos are shared out between the singers, and the group comes together for the choruses.

The version of Messiah performed is very much the group's own; no specific year in the work's development is aimed at, whilst at the same time some of the pieces performed are not those in the 'standard' version so we have the delightful, original 12/8 version of 'Rejoice Greatly' and Handel's shorter version of 'Why do the Nations'.

Charles Jennens' aim when assembling the texts for Messiah had a clear purpose, a religious didacticism that was aimed specifically at the sort of people likely to go to concerts. Handel had no part in the assembling of the text, and in fact Jennens was unhappy with some of Handel's responses to the words. But a large part of English 18th century oratorio was the idea of presenting Biblical stories in the theatre; the words and their meaning were very important.

This is something that comes over superbly in this recording. There is a directness to the performances, and despite the fact that solos are split between eleven soloists, there is a remarkable unanimity of purpose about them. The directness and clarity are allied to superb diction along with a great sense that the text really means something. This is a Messiah with a proper story to tell..

When Handel premiered Messiah in Dublin his forces consisted of 16 men (altos, tenors and basses) and 16 boy choristers, with an instrumental ensemble of strings, trumpets and timpani, plus organ (Handel's own, which was shipped to Dublin) and harpsichord. So the numbers and forces on this disc rather evoke those first performances, rather than the more lavish later Messiah performances with additional instruments.

Throughout the performance, Parsons relishes the litheness that his forces bring to the work. Speeds are never overly fast, but there is a refreshing quality to the faster movements whilst the slower ones often have a welcome intimacy. And there are lots of moments when the plangent quality of the smaller string forces is brought out, adding an extra dimension to the sound quality.

There is a crispness to the choruses and a welcome rhythmic alertness, rather than wishing for a larger ensemble we enjoy the felicity of a small number of committed performers with the attack, clarity and articulation that this implies, along with a lovely perkiness to the faster numbers.

The solos are never less than enjoyable, and the important moments really count. Both tenors bring a refreshing bite to their tone, whilst soprano Charlotte Bowden makes a virtue of her warm feminine tone in 'There were shepherds' sequence. Soprano Elen Lloyd Roberts sings 'I know that my Redeemer liveth' with a directness which makes the words really mean something. Alexandra Osborne is very dignified in 'He was despised' with a very direct middle section, whilst counter-tenor Mark Williams brings a refreshing contrast with his mellow, plangent tone in 'O thou that tellest' and 'Thou art gone up on high'. John Holland Avery combines rhythmic alertness and strength in a terrific account of 'The trumpet shall sound'.

Eboracum Baroque
Eboracum Baroque

This is never going to be a library choice, but Eboracum Baroque's vivid directness and attention to meaning ensure that this Messiah is one that I will enjoy returning to.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - Messiah
Eboracum Baroque
Chris Parsons (conductor)
Recorded 17-19 December 2020, St Mary's Church, Swaffham Prior
The recording is available from the group's website

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