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Handel 'Messiah' (Complete) : Devon Baroque (Artistic Director, Margaret Faultless), The Winkleigh Singers, Siona Stockel (sop) Stephen Harvey (ctr-tenor) Richard Rowntree (tenor) Andrew Ashwin (bass) Roland Smith (conductor) St. Peter's Church, Barnstaple, Devon, Saturday 27th November (BK)


Christmas came early to North Devon this year. On the day before Advent Sunday it was an exceptional pleasure to hear a complete Messiah given by a first rate professional orchestra, a fine team of young soloists and a gifted amateur chamber choir, and all of this almost literally on my doorstep for once.


Devon and Cornwall are not well served for professional music and indeed the situation is getting worse. This week, Exeter University announced its intention to close down its music department to save money, and hammered yet one more nail into the South West’s musical coffin. Our remaining vital spark is Devon Baroque.


The orchestra was formed in 1999 by Margaret Faultless, leader of both the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, and a member of the London Haydn Quartet. The core group comprises strings and continuo and all of the players live in the West Country. The memorable musical events they have provided in the last five years have made them a unique feature of the local artistic landscape and if the government’s term ‘Beacon’ status meant anything at all for musical organisations, then Devon Baroque should have it.


So too in its way, should the sustained and enterprising work done by Roland Smith and his well founded chamber choir. Started twenty years ago, the Winkleigh Singers (they’re called after the Devon village where they originated) began as a small group of friends who met weekly to sing madrigals. The original criteria for membership were simple: people needed some sight-reading ability and a capacity for singing in tune with minimal wobble. From these modest beginnings though, the membership has grown to some twenty strong, the group tours internationally on a regular basis (most recently to Hungary) and gives half a dozen concerts a year, some a capella and others with accompaniment.


A complete Messiah is a big sing even for gifted amateurs, and the trade-off between clarity of line and optimised volume has to be managed carefully. On this occasion it was: Roland Smith took the work at a sprightly yet unrushed pace so that every note was audible and the vibrato free sound of the orchestra was matched beautifully with transparent, accurate and at times powerful chorus work. A commercial recording could be justified with only minimal polishing, particularly since the chosen versions of some numbers are too rarely heard.


Important aspects of the Winkleigh Singers' work are the encouragement of promising young soloists and careful research into the music that the group performs. The soloists for this performance were all recent graduates from the major colleges who specialise in the baroque repertoire. Siona Stockel, a former pupil of Catherine Bott, had the flexibility necessary to cope with Roland Smith's rollicking twelve-eight reading of Rejoice greatly but also the careful legato needed in He shall feed his flock (in which she sang both parts) and I know that my Redeemer liveth. She sang particularly expressively too in the unusual soprano version of Thou art gone up on high and in the duet and chorus version (with counter-tenor Stephen Harvey) of How beautiful are the feet taken, as I understand it, from Handel's score for the first Dublin performance. This arrangement is so interesting and effective, that it should be used more regularly.


My luck has been in over the past three weeks in terms of hearing good counter-tenors. After James Laing's moving singing as the Angel in Jonathan Dove's Tobias in Exeter on November 6th, it was an unexpected pleasure to hear Stephen Harvey. Here is another young man with a beautiful voice, carefully controlled throughout its whole compass and particularly solid in the lower range. His complete account of ‘He was despised was excellent as was the duet work with Siona Stockel mentioned already and in O death where is thy sting with tenor Richard Rowntree.

Richard Rowntree had been drafted in at extremely short notice but was very much at ease with his music. He's a Handelian tenor right enough who managed the florid passages in his music without difficulty while phrasing everything else with stylistic elegance. Perhaps a little more drama in Thou shalt break them would have been welcome but he met his particular challenge (the unusual solo version of Their sound is gone out ) fearlessly. Good work.


Before I developed vocal dementia - my voice knows where it should be going but wanders off on its own these days - I used to sing as a bass and am always interested in other basses and baritones. I enjoyed Andrew Ashwin's singing enormously. This is a light voice as yet - he's still a young man - but it's expressive, easy and powerful. His singing in Why do the nations rage was agile, he coped with the Durham Light Infantry pacing of The people who walked in darkness easily and he and the trumpet sounded together thrillingly. I hope to be around to hear him in another ten years' time.


The last word must go to Devon Baroque of course for their truly exceptional playing. Its Artistic Director must be bored to tears with this by now, but both she and her orchestra are not only faultless but probably peerless too. More from them soon please, and with the Winkleigh Singers if possible.

Bill Kenny


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