Bristol Choral Society is by no means your typical massed choir. Under the enterprising musical leadership of their conductor, Hilary Campbell, they have bounced back from lockdown with aplomb and should be congratulated on their perseverance and sustained online music-making during months of self-isolation, when many other singing groups have gone into abeyance. It is no surprise that in the past year the choir has won both Making Music and PRS awards. They also pioneer interesting approaches to programming and recruitment, as evidenced by their last concert when they performed the first part of Handel’s Messiah without scores, and by their imaginative choral scholar scheme which encourages aspiring young professional singers to join with the incentive of bursaries and occasional solo spots.
It was armed with this knowledge that I attended their all-Mozart concert last Saturday at Bristol Cathedral when the choir were accompanied by the British Sinfonietta (not to be confused with the Britten Sinfonia!). The programme comprised popular works such as Mozart’s Coronation Mass and motet Ave Verum Corpus alongside the less frequently performed Alma Dei Creatoris and Regina Coeli, which Mozart wrote as a teenager. It was interesting to hear the lesser-known works, although I felt at times that the detail of the orchestral playing and choruses in the faster passages got lost in the cavernous acoustics of the cathedral.
For me, the highlight of the evening was Ave Verum Corpus, delivered with effective simplicity by the choir, singing entirely from memory with lovely sustained tone and carefully paced dynamics. The choristers are to be commended in general on looking up from their scores during the entire performance, this really makes a difference to the audience experience and transforms the sound.
The programme concluded with Mozart’s Mass in C Major, arguably his most famous shorter mass setting, written and premiered in Salzburg in 1779. It acquired the ‘Coronation’ epithet in the early nineteenth century as by then it had become the preferred choice for imperial coronations. Indeed the work is magisterial in its scope, and the choir and orchestra certainly rose to the challenge of conveying the grandeur of the piece amidst the soaring pillars of the cathedral. All of the soloists were on top form, with soprano Frances Israel providing dramatic coloratura in both the Regina Coeli and Agnus Dei from the mass.
I look forward to hearing more from the Bristol Choral Society. Their next dates are a ‘Come and Sing’ workshop to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee with Parry’s “I was Glad” in April followed by a performance of Schubert’s Mass in A Flat in June. From a personal point of view, I would like to hear them singing more unaccompanied music, which I think would play to their strengths.
CEO, St George’s Bristol
(Photo: Barbara Evripidou/FirstAvenuePhotography.com)
One of the features of British life for over 200 years has been pre Christmas performances of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Handel was born in 1685, grew up and trained in Germany, worked as a composer in Germany and Italy, before coming to work in the UK in 1710. Under the Brexit rules of today, he might have found that difficult, but in 1710 he had no problems. And, he knew at that time the future King of England, George 1st , because he was already the Kapellmeister to George, who was then the Elector of Hanover. Royal patronage (£200 p.a.) from Queen Anne in London brought Handel back to England in 1712. He stayed here until his death in 1759.
In England, Handel became a prolific and popular composer of many different types of music, including over 40 operas. He was a celebrity. In 1741, he wrote the music for the religious oratorio, Messiah, in just 24 days,. In 1742, he sailed from Neston, on the Wirral, near Liverpool, to Dublin, to give Messiah its first performances. Why Dublin ? Handel needed the money that was offered there. Handel was a shrewd and effective business man. In Dublin, he practiced the work on the organ of St. Mary’s Church on the Quays. The Church is now a well known café, bar and restaurant. Messiah was a big success in Dublin, was given in London in 1743, and is now performed worldwide, and year round.
Handel could return to Britain today, even under Brexit: in 1727 he became a British subject.
Bristol had its first Messiah performance in 1758. The December 11th 2021 Cathedral performance was part of an ongoing annual tradition here for at least 100 years. Led by Hilary Campbell, conducting the Choral Society choir, four soloists and the instruments of the Bristol Ensemble, there were two robust and exhilarating performances in the Bristol Cathedral on December 11th. Because of Covid-19, only Part One of Messiah’s three parts were given, but that was a very convincing experience. There was then a strong “bonus” performance of the famous Hallelujah Chorus at the end, bringing the audience to its feet in the time honoured fashion. It would have been nice to have had the powerful and complex final Amen too, to round off the evening, but that might have been too much for the Health and Safety rules.
I eagerly look forward to Christmas 2022, when we might hear the whole work.