REVIEW: Stratford Choral Society’s Messiah at Holy Trinity

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Holy Trinity photographed by Mark Williamson

Steve Newman reviews Handel’s Messiah, A Sacred Oratorio, Stratford-upon-Avon Choral Society with The Regency Sinfonia, Holy Trinity Church, 15th December

George Frederick Handel’s Messiah is a musical beast that cannot be caged, but must be allowed a certain freedom by a keeper of firmness and sensitivity, who knows when the beast needs to run, then rest, then howl and scream its delight in the very essence of life itself.

On Saturday the conductor of the Stratford Choral Society, and the Regency Sinfonia, Stephen Dodsworth, did just that, creating one of the finest performances of the Messiah I’ve heard in a very long time. He brought out the very best of the Choral Society, not least in its very professional attention to tonal detail and the guardsman-like precision and attack of the many set pieces — both alone and in unison with the orchestra — that are the cathedral-sized building blocks of this most influential piece of 18th century music. Without the Messiah Elgar could not have written The Dream of Gerontious, or Puccini The Girl of the Golden West.

Handel’s Messiah also has a dance quality to it that motivates both the players and the singers in a mild, sometimes syncopated way, that pre-dates ragtime here and there, building up a momentum that is unstoppable in its simplicity, yet compelling in its intricacies and over-layering of time sequences and rhythm, all firmly kept in place by the double bass and bassoon: the beating heart of Handel himself.

Against all of this the vocal soloists can often have a difficult time; but not on Saturday night in Holy Trinity.

Charles Jennens, who, with Handel, co-authored the libretto of the Messiah, writes very simply and clearly, words which are, all too often, sung very quietly, most notably in the alto and tenor parts.

That was not the case with Sacha Fullerton (alto), and James Atherton (tenor), who handled their parts with clarity and beautiful diction. Fleur Moore-Bridger (soprano), originally from Stratford, sang with a clarity that would have had Handel smiling and nodding with contentment, especially in ‘I know my redeemer liveth’, which had elements of Kathleen Ferrier in the careful control and timbre of her voice. James Atherton’s ‘Behold and see if there be any sorrow’ was a small masterclass, with Jimmy Holliday (bass), whose father had once been a priest at Holy Trinity, singing with a power that was quite intoxicating in its robustness, most notably in ‘…in the twinkling of an eye’.

This most performed of Handel’s oratorios was given a new breath of life on Saturday, that both warmed the hearts of the audience, and the very fabric of Holy Trinity Church on a very cold December night.

Well done to everyone.