Handel Messiah (ed Prout), 3rd November 2018, with Camerata of London and Soloists: Alexandra Kidgell (soprano), Clare McCaldin (mezzo), Oliver White (tenor), James Cleverton (bass)

Musical Director and Conductor:
Derek Harrison

When planning a programme for the Choral Society’s 80th Anniversary year, it was noted that the first piece the choir is recorded as having performed was Handel’s Messiah. This masterpiece and staple of the choral repertoire has, naturally, been performed again by the choir many times since. Recent performances have followed modern performance practice in seeking to reflect the sound world and style of Handel’s own time, however for this outing Derek Harrison decided to return to an earlier era and look to recreate a performance that would have been familiar to the singers in the earliest Hertford Choir. To this end, this performance aimed to adhere to the instructions and orchestration of Ebenezer Prout, the editor of the 1902 Novello edition which was the standard throughout much of the 20th Century.

Thus, we got a full modern symphony orchestra, including clarinets, bassoons, horns and two double basses.  The orchestration (partly based on a version by Mozart) makes use of these forces by introducing varied colours and textures and this produces a wide dynamic range. The choral parts have editorial dynamics that reflect this orchestration. Prout also gives us his idea of the tempi, using metronome markings. To the modern ear these metronome markings come as a bit of a shock – they are really very slow.

The Hertford Choral Society threw themselves whole-heartedly into this challenge. We were given here a stately, grand and impressive rendition. This was a reminder, if one were needed, that the rules of performance are not fixed, but different approaches to a work can reveal new insights and scale distinctive heights.

From the outset it was clear that, as always, the choir had been meticulously drilled! The range of dynamics achieved was truly impressive and this brought shape and cohesion to the performance as it matched perfectly the shape given by Prout in his orchestration. The choir sang with a beautifully smooth legato almost throughout, which again is unfamiliar to modern ears, but it chimes with the orchestral style and the slower tempi. As for those tempi, they took a little getting used to! Some of the pieces in the first half seemed to struggle a little to get off the ground at the slower speeds. The tempi were certainly not any slower than Prout’s metronome markings and indeed, as we progressed through the piece the pace picked up and we appeared to move further from Prout’s tempi, which was no bad thing. "Let us break their bonds asunder" could even have been described as fast!

The excellent soloists were game and went with the flow, though the soprano Alexandra Kidgell looked a little uncomfortable at times – this was perhaps some way from the usual performance practise of the Sixteen, of which she is a member. The tenor Oliver White seemed much more at home and made the most of the space and support that the slower tempi and larger orchestra gave him. Clare McCaldin gave sonorous weight to her arias and James Cleverton impressed in particular in “The trumpet shall sound” in duet with the superb, but sadly unnamed, trumpet soloist from the orchestra, the Camerata of London.

The performance built to a tremendous climax in the second half. The “Hallelujah” chorus packed a mighty punch that I’m sure would have been familiar in any Edwardian concert hall. The pianissimo unaccompanied choir sections in “Since by man came death” were hushed and exciting, without the tuning problems that can marr this passage. “Worthy is the lamb” and the “Amen” chorus gave us a big, satisfying muscular ending.

Overall, the choir performed with commitment and energy and made a convincing case for restoring some older performance practice. If you were willing to go along for the ride (which I certainly was) then this evening was fascinating, often fun and frequently stirring.

Oliver Hitch