Handel’s Messiah, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 8th June 2022, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with the CBSO Chorus, 4**** David & Paul Gray

This was a Messiah of two halves.  Part One was dogged by some lack of unanimity over tempos.  Conductor, John Butt, standing in a short notice, wanted to keep things stately.  Not everyone else was of the same mind.  This problem first came to light during tenor, James Gilchrist’s opening accompanied recitative Comfort Ye.  It started beautifully, with exquisite pianissimos and a mezza di voce* to die for.  But the soloist, standing well in front of the conductor and not sharing an eyeline, seemed to want to pull ahead.  The result was rocky, with a clearly discernible parting of company at one point.

Tempos persisted as an issue.  If you are going to do Messiah with big forces, you need to make an extra effort to keep the brisker movements light or risk losing their dance-like quality.  In this case, choruses such as And the glory of the Lord and For Unto Us a Child is Born, taken at a sedate pace, felt leaden.  The florid passages were mechanical and lacked shape and direction.  Throughout, it seemed the music itself wanted to break loose and run ahead.  There were, unfortunately, moments when this is precisely what happened.  However, we glimpsed brighter possibilities during the pastoral sequence culminating in Glory to God.  Then things got dull again in a formless His Yoke is Easy.

Then, after the interval, everything changed, and became truly fabulous.  From the start there was a sense of purpose and momentum.  It was as though the sweeping drama of the Passion text took over, taking everyone with it, and things just got better and better.   The “sheep-we-are-like” (ie. the chorus For We Like Sheep)  lifted up their woolly skirts and danced around the pasture allowing the chorus to produce filigree passage work.  The CBSO Chorus’ wall of sound came into its own, adding gravitas and drama, both here and to other monumental movements.

A top-notch quartet of soloist were excellent throughout.   James Gilchrist gave a detailed reading and delivered an effervescent Every Valley.  Singing with perfect poise and an eloquent range of colouration, countertenor Reginal Mobley reached deep into the music.  Baritone, Christopher Purves, ably assisted by obligato trumpet Glyn Owen, raised the dead and the roof in The Trumpet Shall Sound. Soprano, Mary Bevan sang with a strong, broad, burnished tone and dramatic commitment.

Part-Three of the Oratorio  built beautifully towards searing performances of the climactic choruses Worthy is the Lamb and Amen.  It’s such a shame and a mystery, that the evening took so long to hit its stride.

(*A sustained note with a perfectly even crescendo followed by a mirroring, perfectly even diminuendo)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

John Butt – Conductor

Mary Bevan – Soprano

Reginald Mobley – Countertenor

James Gilchrist – Tenor

Christopher Purves – Baritone

CBSO Chorus


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