What links a Christmas pudding and a performance of Handel’s Messiah? Well, they both need careful planning and attention to detail – they need the best quality ingredients, mixed together with panache, a dash of spirit and all perfectly complementing each other. Above all, however, they need a skillful person who knows how to mix the ingredients, who can time things to perfection, so that the finished product is exciting and hugely satisfying! There were no Christmas puddings on offer in Pershore Abbey, but there was a sheer cornucopia of musical brilliance and excellence.
The Elgar Chorale, together with Baroque Orchestra, Pavillion Ensemble and four hugely talented International soloists under the charismatic direction of Piers Maxim, breathed new life into Handel’s old warhorse. The performance was an absolute revelation of how exciting this music can be when using Handelian rhythms, speeds and appropriate ornamentation, as well as period instruments and small-scale vocal and orchestral resources. The long ovation at the end endorsed the audience’s approbation of his outstanding reading of this choral classic.
From the very beginning, Pavillion Ensemble set the bar for the evening with a very tight, rhythmically controlled performance of the Sinfonia (Overture). This was playing of a professional standard and a joy to listen to as, indeed, was their sensitive accompaniment throughout the performance. Our four brilliant soloists showed just why they are in such great demand, with performances that were characterised by clear diction, expressive control, sensitive ornamentation and coloratura. Tenor, Mark Dobell, gave a moving account of “Comfort ye” and of special delight was his interpretation of “Thy rebuke” capturing fully the pathos of the text, and “Thou shalt break them” which was full of spirit and verve. Bass-Baritone, James Birchall produced a variety of appropriate timbres for his solos – among the most notable were “Thus saith the Lord” clear and dramatic; “For behold” and “The people that walked” – these displayed wonderful breath control, articulation and dynamics. Soprano, Christina Birchall-Sampson, captured the drama of “Rejoice greatly” as well as tenderness in “How beautiful are the feet” and “I know that my redeemer”. Her ornamentation, controlled runs and contrasting dynamics were excellent. Robin Blaze, countertenor, brought a whole range of excitement to his performances – mostly delivered from memory. “But who may abide” showed good breath control and one could feel the flames crackling in “For he is like”. By contrast, “He was despised” was notable for sensitivity in his colouring of the text, and “Thou art gone up” was beautifully phrased with a variety of dynamics. Mention should also be made of the recitatives so beautifully performed by Megan Wall – one of the choir’s young sopranos. And so to The Elgar Chorale. One can only marvel at the immense impact Piers Maxim has had on this choir as they go from strength to strength. The Choruses were sung with clarity, conviction and authenticity of style, from the delicate timbre produced in “For unto us” to the firm, declamatory “Surely” the neat contrapuntal singing in “And with his stripes” and subtle nuances of dynamics in “All we like sheep”. We had never heard the “Hallelujah” chorus sung with such freshness and sensitivity before. By any standards, this was an outstanding concert and one which will remain in the memory of all those present for a very long time.