Messiah is a bit like the classic Sunday roast: it is quintessentially British; there are lots of possible different ways of doing it; everybody thinks they know how it should be done and people can get quite upset when not served the version they know and love. Hats off then to Adrian Lucas and City of Birmingham Choir for shaking it up and presenting us with something a bit unfamiliar.
This version reassigned a few numbers to different solo voices and replaced other well know movements with alternatives. The result was at times refreshing and illuminating.
There were gains; an arioso version of And the angel said unto them, rather that than the usual recitative was fresh and new. There were losses; the choral setting of Their sound is gone out is a wonderful piece of word-painting, whereas the arioso version which replaced it had rather less impact. There were some changes that just seemed gratuitous. Did handing Behold and see and But thou didst not leave to the soprano make any real difference – other than giving the poor old tenor even less to do?
Also, if you are going to start making changes, why not go further; the 12/8 version of Rejoice greatly is a delight and performed not nearly often enough.
A competent set of soloists took the changes in their stride. Tenor Thomas Castle sang with a lovely fundamental tone, but rather inconsistent placing and a tendency to snatch top notes. Bass, Ashley Riches thrilled with a dark, textured lower register. Soprano, Rebecca Hardwick gave us a richly tender I know that my Redeemer liveth. The highlight of the evening, however, was the counter-tenor. Hugh Cutting possesses a beautiful, burnished timbre, an effortless reach throughout his extensive range. He communicated with artistry and brought an appropriately operatic passion and drama to all his solos. This is a true star in the making.
Members of the CBSO played with style and achieved a crisp baroque sound despite performing on modern instruments. The choir responded with precision to Maestro Adrian Lucas’ commanding direction. Their passage work was tight, and they delivered a powerful wall of sound during the more monolithic choral moments. The great final sequence was simply sensational.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a Messiah and this version has made me think that this year, for a change, I might enjoy Yorkshire Pudding with my Turkey!
City of Birmingham Choir
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Conductor – Adrian Lucas
Soprano – Rebecca Harwick
Counter Tenor – Hugh Cutting
Tenor – Thomas Castle
Bass – Ashley Richards
Harpsichord – Thomas Trotter
Chamber Organ – Christopher Alsop