Performances of ‘Messiah’ are many and varied, and have changed quite markedly over the past decades. Increased tempi can give the impression of greater fluency, but occasionally the performance will lose some of the richer colour in the word-setting, which is one of the hallmarks of a deeply felt ‘Messiah’ performance.
The Southampton Choral Society, although smaller in number than in many former concerts, gave at times an inspired performance. Some choruses are very difficult to sing well, but the secure discipline, commitment and enthusiasm shown by the Choir was great to see, and hear; moulded by the clear and positive direction of their new Music Director, Benjamin Costello.
The Oxford Baroque Ensemble consisted of highly experienced musicians. The sound quality of a baroque group is very much different, and it certainly influenced in a positive way, albeit perhaps indirectly, the contribution of the Choir and the Soloists. Excellent balance and refined Baroque playing techniques, gave a welcome clarity – and for many listeners a new, more intimate sound. The addition of the chamber organ rather than a harpsichord was an added delight. Its understated but vital harmonic support was ideal for the ambience of the Dobson Theatre.
The four soloists, Soprano Sarah Dacey: Mezzo-Soprano Angharad Lyddon: Tenor Oliver Johnston and Baritone Timothy Nelson were perfectly balanced in voice and experience. They conveyed the essential drama and emotion of the work perfectly. It wasn’t just ‘another ‘Messiah’, but almost as if they , and the audience, were hearing the whole beauty of the work for the first time. Their proximity to the audience made their interpretative impact even more positive and intimate.
Ben Costello only took over the Choir last September, but his long experience as a conductor and professional musician was never to be doubted. His control of the Choir and orchestra never got in the way of the overall performance; discreet, but nicely judged.
The Dobson Arts Centre offers a comfortable venue and the acoustics, rather than being very dry, did help the projection of the sound. Hearing all the sung words in the soli and choruses was probably a new experience for most of us in the audience!
In the writer’s opinion this was one of the best performances of ‘Messiah’ from the Choir for many a long year. This can only augur well for the future.