Messiah at Snape Maltings

Messiah at Snape Maltings; Saturday December 4, 2010

“I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God Himself!” exclaimed George Frideric Handel when he was discovered at his writing desk, apparently emerging from a trance, with the completed manuscript of his Hallelujah Chorus in front of him. But can Handel’s Messiah convey a similar spiritual experience in this materialistic age?

To judge from the audience’s rapt applause at Snape on Saturday evening, and from overheard comments after the performance - given by the Aldeburgh Music Club choir and the Suffolk Baroque Players - there’s no doubt that this was anything but a routine concert, though how far it can be said to have been a spiritual occasion isn’t clear.

People were certainly moved, though who can tell whether their feelings were most stirred by the significance of librettist Charles Jennens’ inspired assembly of bible texts which tell the story of Christ and reflect on its significance, or by Handel’s glorious music, over 50 mostly short choruses and solo arias, or by the impressive act of community music-making represented by this largely amateur performance. Probably a mixture of all three, adding up to a powerful experience for audience and performers alike.

I don’t use the word amateur to imply hostile criticism and it hardly needs saying that the four vocal soloists were professional, likewise the gifted baroque trumpeter Clare Thorn and other orchestral soloists, notably on timpani (Steve Burke) and organ (David Wright), while throughout the long and taxing evening the veteran concert master Pam Munks was a tower of strength. No, I mean amateur in the sense that everybody on the platform was there because they loved what they were doing: a spirit of love operated throughout the evening and for that we must thank and congratulate the conductor Edmond Fivet. His command of proceedings was impressive and not only for musical matters: the smallest hand gesture had the hundred-strong choir standing and sitting down in perfect unison! His concept of Messiah involved brisk tempos and a no-nonsense approach, resisting any temptation to milk the music for extra expression since it’s all there in Mr Handel’s dots.

Aldeburgh Music Club (of which, to declare an interest, the writer is President) is a choral society that doesn’t require audition from its members and as a consequence might be expected to make a somewhat opaque impression in a big hall such as Snape Maltings. Not a bit of it. Rehearsals earlier in the week had been dogged by foul weather but everybody was fired up to deliver something special and on the night they (we) produced a fine body of sound.

The sopranos in particular were a fearless group: they launched into their florid semiquavers with zest and pinpoint accuracy, setting the bar high from the very first chorus, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed”. A mere handful of minor blemishes such as an early entry here or a flattened top note there were forgivable in the context of nearly three hours of concentrated music-making. It is customary these days to use small professional choirs similar to those deployed by Handel himself (he specified six boy trebles and 19 men including male altos).

Most Read

At Snape there were five times the number of singers but four fewer violins than Handel required; nevertheless the balance seemed about right, though from my seat among the basses it was difficult to judge the impact the soloists were having in the hall. Ruby Hughes was the sweet-voiced soprano; Timothy Travers-Brown had a fine cutting edge to his sturdy counter-tenor; Christopher Bowen was the elegant tenor and Adrian Powter sang “The Trumpet shall Sound “ with gusto; the programme book listed him as “bass” on the front page but more accurately as “baritone” at his biographical entry.

Mr Travers-Brown gave a particularly touching account of “He was despised and rejected of men” but all four soloists took great care over their words and emphasised the concept that they were telling a story rather than preaching a sermon. Since the bible texts were printed in the programmes and not all of them are familiar, it seemed a perverse decision to keep the hall in near darkness; Perhaps Aldeburgh Music should be sent the text of the bass aria: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”. However there was a wonderful moment at the start of the Hallelujah Chorus, where knowledge of the words is not important. Everybody stood, as is the custom, only too happy to stretch their legs after a couple of hours of sitting. And then conductor Edmond Fivet turned to them from the rostrum and encouraged them to join in the singing. What a great idea! It should be adopted at the Proms forthwith. I was reminded of the Sassoon poem:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom.

Humphrey Burton