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Halle Collection Series - Handel,  Messiah: Sarah Fox (soprano); Iestyn Davies (counter tenor); Benjamin Hulett (tenor); Derek Welton (baritone). Hallé Orchestra. Hallé Choir. (Frances Cooke, guest choral director). Conducted by Christian Curnyn, The Bridgewater Hall Manchester. 5.12 2009 (RJF)

It was with a little trepidation perhaps, that many of the audience greeted the unexpecred entrance onto the platform of Sir Mark Elder CBE, the Musical Director of the Hallé, at the scheduled start of the performance. He was quick to assure the audience that everybody was fit and well. He  went on to explain that although he was not conducting that evening he had come to mark a special occasion and rare event, the celebration of 50 years of service by Pat Carver a member of the Hallé Choir. He noted that she Pat joined whilst still at school and despite years away at college and on maternity leave she had still by dint of dedication, achieved this remarkable milestone. He presented her with a gold brooch in the form of a treble clef and containing a diamond. She asked him to say how much she, and other members of the choir owed to the support and understanding of their families to enable the commitment of membership to be met.

Sir Mark’s presence to make the presentation on this occasion, on what could have been a night off for him, says much for the family ethos that now permeates the Hallé and which without doubt has contributed to the significantly raised performance standards  in evidence since his arrival as Musical Director.

In presenting the broach to Pat Carver, Sir Mark also revealed that she had sung in sixty performances of Handel’s Messiah with the Hallé. Fifty years ago, before the influence of the period instruments, I remember performances of the work that were very different from what we heard on this occasion:  it was normal practice then to have a full orchestra and big organ playing. This influenced the chosen soloists' voice types and the presence of a counter tenor in those days would scarcely have been known. It was with the Hallé in 1921, that a certain Isobel Bailie made her debut in what became her adopted city. Ever famous in Oratorio, and particularly for the tonal beauty and clarity of her singing of the air I know that my Redeemer liveth, it was her interpretation that dominated my early years and knowledge of the work, more particularly so as she was a friend of my aunt. But times and performance practise have moved on, and in this concert we had a greatly reduces version of the Hallé comprising eight first and second violins sitting to the left of the rostrum, five violas, four cellos and two double basses on the right. To these were added only three woodwind, two trumpets, timpani, concert organ and two keyboards. The music was conducted with brisk pace and elegant phrasing from the harpsichord by Christian Curnyn;  without vibrato or rubato as befits an exponent of early music  and  the modern practice.

The soprano Sarah Fox sang with a warm centre to her voice, smooth legato, variety of tonal colour and good expression. If she didn’t quite erase memories of Isobel Bailie in the famous air, it was  because the centre of her voice is somewhat lower than her illustrious predecessor's which meant some loss of word clarity in the highest registers. She nicely complemented Iestyn Davies’s counter tenor in the air He shall feed his flock, and he had already shown considerable vocal grace, skill and power on his own in But who may abide the day of His coming and when singing alongside the choir in O thou tallest good tidings to Zion. At full stretch in his upper register,  he had a slight tendency to hootyness to my ear, but otherwise I could easily see how he is making a considerable career for himself on the opera stage in appropriate works and with period bands.

The other two male soloists, tenor Benjamin Hulett and Australian baritone Derek Welton both sang strongly, the former showing plenty of vocal muscle in the recitative Comfort ye and the following air Every valley shall be exalted. His vocal strength, emotional expressiveness and  good diction  carried  on throughout the evening with by only criticism being about  some lack of division in the decoration on occasion. Vocal strength was also the name of the game for baritone Derek Welton, his voice rattling the walls in The trumpet shall sound, with matching virtuosity from Gareth Small, Section Leader in the orchestra, on the trumpet. Really thrilling.

Whatever the virtue of the soloists though, a successful  Messiah is always dependent on the quality of the Choir. This  has been so since the work's  inaugural version  in Dublin in 1742, through several revisions in the composer’s lifetime, and in performance ever since. Frances Cooke, guest choral director is maintaining the standards for which the Hallé choir enjoys an envious reputation  - as can be heard on several recent recordings of Elgar for example, with Sir Mark on the rostrum. Yes, there is  still a need for strengthening of numbers in the tenors in particular, but even Naples has the same problem: it is no longer possible  even there, to wander round the local trattoria and pick yourself a few class tenor these days. It is not merely a question of the age profile of choirs either:  in all sections, as with jazz bands, the age profile is rising. But even when younger men can be persuade into  getting involved, mostly  they are bigger than their fathers let alone their grandfathers and  big men tend to be basses and baritones. The acting choral director has done an excellent job on the disparate balance of numbers between the ladies and men of the choir with the baritones and tenors singing lustily, but with good articulation and intonation, so as not to be overwhelmed by the superior number of ladies who as always sang with commitment and clarity. Well done all concerned.

All in all, this was a Messiah to stand proudly alongside  those I have heard in the Bridgewater Hall,and previously in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, over the past fifty odd years. Handel remains in very good hands with the Hallé orchestra, the soloists it attracts and its choir and choral directors.

Robert J Farr


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