Messiah Review – “a performance of the highest quality”

Displaced from the Colston Hall for their traditional Christmas concert, Bristol Choral Society chose Clifton Cathedral as the venue for a memorable performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ on Saturday evening. Even the atrocious weather could not lessen the appeal of this masterpiece, and the Society performed to a capacity and hugely appreciative audience.

‘Messiah’, like all Handel’s other oratorios, was not written to be performed in a church but in theatres. Clifton Cathedral, however, was an ideal setting – its clear reverberation only serving to enhance the music’s effect.

As usual, the choir were on sparkling form: totally committed, sonorous and engaging, with outstanding articulation and razor-sharp precision in all parts. The placing of singing voices in this cathedral can often be problematic, but no such issues on this occasion: conductor Hilary Campbell distributed her choral forces with an unerring sense of balance, and the result was first-class.

The four soloists were outstandingly good: soprano Lucy De Butts had a clear, incisive tone matched with fine sense of style for music of this period, whilst mezzo-soprano Lucilla Graham possessed a warm and beguiling tone in all her solos. Christopher Bowen (tenor) and Frederick Long (bass) were not only outstanding vocally, but their facial expressions ‘invited us’ into their world and the text – utterly compelling performances.

Conductor Hilary Campbell demonstrated first-class control of the ensemble and adopted some very brisk tempos for the choruses – quite a challenge in that acoustic. In this she was supported by quite the best orchestra I’ve heard for a long while (Bristol Ensemble), in particular the continuo players Jane Fenton (cello) and the excellent Matthew Bale (organ).

This really was a first-rate performance of the highest quality – one which elicited warm and prolonged applause. Congratulations to all concerned, and I look forward to hearing more BCS at Clifton.