Monday, 12 December 2016

Denn die Gloria Gottes des Herrn…

The first words I wrote upon getting home were “I feel truly blessed”. Hopefully, what follows will explain why.

Just over a year ago, I encountered Eboracum Baroque for the first time; and – if it is possible to do so, with a whole ensemble of musicians… – fell madly in love with them: for their youth; their talent (individual and combined); their sublime technique; the transparency of their sound; their communicativeness; their collegiateness… but mainly because I had never heard music – ever – produced with such consistent beauty, passion, belief, and (for want of another better word) obvious (and almost infinite) potential. Here was something that, at the time, I couldn’t put my finger on. Couldn’t understand why it so resonated; lined my heart for so long. I just knew it was unlike anything I had ever encountered. But, my goodness, it felt good!

However, after thirteen months of listening to some truly great musicians play some truly great music; after having my heart and soul repeatedly shattered and rebuilt; after thirteen months of gestating a realization that music really could be central to my life again; meld with my very corpuscles; stream at the speed of light, continuously, through my neurons, building everlasting, concrete connnections… – after thirteen months, it dawned on me what it was that so inspired me. This – whatever it is that Eboracum Baroque actually do… – is to fulfil my ideal way of making music. They literally have made my harmonious dreams, my ambitions, come true. In other words, the Eboracum Baroque ‘way’ is how – had deafness, and only a mediocre talent for music, not gotten in the way – I myself would have liked to, loved to, make music…. Hearing and seeing it performed this way proves not only that it is possible; but is a consummate realization, which, probably, is also a greater reward.

It is also incredibly brave – and in so many ways. But because these youngsters are also themselves individually and corporately courageous (even though they probably neither realize it, nor would accept such a descriptor); because they share a belief, an ideal… it is one that succeeds like nothing else. And, should you require proof: the extended, spontaneous standing ovation that lasted until every single one of them had left the stage at Great Malvern Priory, on Saturday night – after a performance of Messiah that I described at the time as “Astonishingly, ravishingly gorgeous and refreshing [with] contrasts, technique and talent to die for!” – should be enough.

Between the ages of about six and twenty-six I grew to loathe Handel’s Messiah. I had sung many excerpts as a cathedral and grammar school chorister (when my voice was more dove, less bittern); accompanied many others doing the same; I had sold programmes for my mum’s annual music society performances – before joining myself, as a baritone – I had also accompanied them for rehearsals; I had even conducted the darned thing at short notice; as well as play timpani for it. Basically there wasn’t a note of the thing I didn’t have committed to memory (hence the state of my rather ancient score, above): and thus abominate. [Of course, a parallel, Christmas-based whirlwind of multiple church services – as chorister, choirmaster, or organist – in rapid succession towards the end of every single year didn’t help soften my growing Scrooge-like attitude to this December ritual, and all its trappings. So, for nearly thirty years, I have avoided them – both Christmas and Messiah – like the plague (or Justin Bieber).]

But if familiarity (or rather brainwashing) had originally bred contempt; then the long absence of this music from my life had at least tempted me (with a gentle nudge from The Good Lady Bard) to discover if my heart really could grow fond again of music that I had once found utterly bewitching. Of course, as Eboracum Baroque were performing it, at least – even if the music still left me cold – the rendition of it would at least reel me in, and make it all worthwhile.

And, of course, having read the first four paragraphs, you’ll have a pretty good idea how it turned out. But what you won’t know is why, or how. And that, of course, is what I shall endeavour to explain, in the review that follows.

Not only does distance help, when shaking hands, and begging forgiveness from what had once been an old friend; but a willingness to see things from a fresh perspective can also be a great facilitator. And, in this case, that “fresh perspective” wasn’t discretionary.

Handel wrote Messiah for modest vocal and instrumental forces, with optional settings for many of the individual numbers. In the years after his death, the work was adapted for performance on a much larger scale, with giant orchestras and choirs. In other efforts to update it, its orchestration was revised and amplified by (among others) Mozart. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries the trend has been towards reproducing a greater fidelity to Handel’s original intentions, although “big Messiah” productions continue to be mounted.

After increasingly suffering twenty years of those “big productions”, to turn up, and find an orchestra of five string players (plus harpischord continuo), and a chorus of twelve, was more than refreshing – especially given my (and my hearing aids’) predilection for “the purity and strength of a small ensemble”.

As the programme note states:

Tonight we offer a Messiah that has been assembled by the studying of Handel’s different versions. For example, we will be performing Rejoice Greatly in the original 12/8 format….
     You will notice the lack of oboes in this performance. This again is in answer to Handel’s original performance where in Dublin he performed with just strings, trumpets and timpani. We are performing at Baroque Pitch this evening which is a semi-tone down from modern pitch that orchestras play at today [allowing] for an even more exciting sound world in terms of keys and also the use of period instruments….
     Messiah is an ever changing masterpiece that should not be unbending in its performance. With the huge amounts of material available it offers performers an exciting opportunity to really make such a wonderful piece their own.

And this they did with aplomb.

From the opening Sinfonia, it was apparent that the instrumentation would be crystal-clear and with a direct line to one’s heart: one player per part leaves no room for error; but it does make space for the sound to float beautifully – especially when so perfectly suited to the ringing acoustic of Great Malvern Priory. But it was the opening of Comfort ye my people that really set the tone: tenor Gareth Edmunds’ perfect enunciation, control of dynamics, and communication of emotion… – pleading for salvation so perfectly (setting the incredibly high benchmark that not one singer deviated from…) that, of course, the Bardic floodgates opened (and would not close until well after the very last “Amen”).

It seems unfair to only list a few of the twelve singers: especially when nearly every member of the choir performed at least one solo – and all so stunningly. (That each chorister is capable of delivering such to an incredibly high, and consistent, standard, and then yet blend transparently back into the chorus, is beyond remarkable….) But I fear I would end up listing every single one of the fifty-three constituent pieces were I just to use perfection as my selection criterion. So, here – with apologies to the truly magnificent, angel-voiced Tamsin Raitt, Naomi Sturges, Alexandra Rogers, and William Gimson… – are a few of my many, many highlights. (It goes without saying that the instrumental accompaniment was glorious throughout: with astonishing contrasts and dynamics. Thanks, therefore – and equal praise – to violinists Anna Waszak, Simone Pirri; viola player Heather Bourne; cellist Hetti Price; bassist Frances Emery – all proving that Baroque bows and a lack of vibrato produce atmosphere by the bucketload – and harpischordist Tom Nichol.)

The opening chorus – And the glory of the Lord – was also an archetype for everything that followed: every syllable perfectly audible; rhythms as crisp as the cold air creeping under the priory’s doors; and variations in volume that were instant, but gentle, rather than contrived.

Last year I wrote…

One of the key attributes (for me) of any directed group of musicians (even when small in number) is the attention everyone pays (or should) to the conductor (although I could be biased). It may not always be readily apparent from observing the performers’ faces: but it was obvious on Saturday evening that the members of Eboracum Baroque – and especially when the choir came on stage after the overture – are incredibly cohesive and attentive: to each other, as well as to engaging director Chris Parsons…. There was an instant and perfect control-and-response in dynamics and tempi of both instrument and voice. Truly astounding – a quality that reflected an innate flexibility; as well as collegiate respect, engagement and enjoyment.

…and nothing has changed. If anything, a growing, subtle confidence has just made things – not that I would have believed such possible – even more astounding (which is why I wrote, above, that, regardless of the existing high levels of achievement, their potential seems so limitless).

When bass Jamie Woollard proclaimed that “darkness shall cover the earth”, my spine crumbled. This was a prophecy that seemed steeped in veracity. Another pair of high points were the duets between soprano Lottie Bowden and alto Laura Baldwin – He shall feed his flock – and alto George Haynes and tenor Jonathan Hanley – O death, where is thy sting? Not only were the voices perfectly blended – complementing and harmonizing superbly – but so were the emotions, the clarity of utterance.

The crème de la crème, though, for me – as far as the soloists were concerned; and only by the tiniest of slivers – was Laura’s remarkable rendition of He was despised. Simply incredible amounts of passion, and expressed to perfection. At this point, my vertebrae simply evaporated….

The climax of the evening, of course, was the Hallelujah chorus! Not only because the audience rose to their feet as one before it even started (after a wonderful rendition of Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron from tenor Nils Greenhow); but because of the sudden appearance of two natural trumpets (astounding control of pitch from Sam Lewis and Kaitlin Wild) and a timpani player (Jude Carlton). If we had been amazed before by the ability of so few musicians to fill so large a space with so much sound, this was the moment when, if you had closed your eyes, you would have imagined the Berlin Phil had been dropped into the priory (all playing on original instruments, of course…) – not five string players, a harpsichord, two trumpets, a timpanist, and a chorus of twelve (proof again that you do not need huge ensembles to make huge musical or emotional impact). And yet their rendition of Since by Man Came Death, a few minutes later, was so hushed, it seemed impossible that these could be the same forces.

By the way, I raved about bass John Holland-Avery in my previous review – and his voice still more than impresses. His duet with trumpeter Sam – The trumpet shall sound (which it did, gloriously) – was magnificent: especially as it came immediately after the subtle wonders of Behold, I tell you a mystery.

I really didn’t want the evening to end (despite the monastic draughts): but end it did – and that standing ovation was utterly well-deserved. We had been treated to a performance of (what I must now admit, again, is) a true masterpiece – one that never lulled for interest and beauty, or passion and skill – one that had taken us back to the sound of that first performance in Dublin in April 1742; and one that filled one’s heart and soul. This was a contemporary Messiah like no other: more talent squeezed into and out of every note than should have been physically possible.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without Chris Parsons’ phenomenal vision, and utterly perfect control: all performers’ eyes seemingly glued to his expressive command – each movement beginning with his hands clasped together in prayer, or as if gathering the magic he would then disperse across choir and orchestra.

I don’t know if there are any tickets left, but they are repeating their performance in St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge, this Saturday (17 December 2016). It may just be the best Christmas present you could buy… – especially for yourself…!

Down a winding cobbled street from the church trips the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, the most evocative and strangely dramatic of all morris dances, performed for perhaps hundreds of years, conceivably for thousands. They are led by a single fiddler, dressed in a rag coat, playing a tune that is childlike and simple, but also full of sadness and an ethereal, mordant power, like the soundtrack of a dream. Behind him come men carrying antlered fallow deer heads in front of their faces. Behind them, a man-woman, a hunter and a hobbyhorse. They dance in silence, slowly. The hunt turns and turns, casting patterns in the moonlight. You feel its mossy, shadowed meaning beyond understanding. A ghost dance, a silently keening sadness. The things we misplace always bear a heavier loss than the things we choose to grasp with white knuckles. And in the darkness, quite unexpectedly, I feel tears of mourning on my cheek.
– AA Gill: AA Gill is Further Away: Helping with Enquiries

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