On Saturday 5 December, the Sheldonian Theatre played host to the Oxford Bach Choir and the London Mozart Players as they performed Handel’s Messiah. Composed in 1741, the work is Handel’s most famous oratorio and has become a staple of the festive season.
Christopher Wren’s magnificent architecture certainly formed an appropriate backdrop for such a grand classical composition. The Baroque opulence of the Sheldonian’s ornate gilt panelling, beautiful ceiling fresco, and impressive pipe organ were well matched by Handel’s majestic music. The theatre was known by the composer himself, who conducted the premiere of an earlier oratorio, Athalia, at the venue in 1733. Given the setting, the performance promised to be a memorable one.
The Messiah presents a Biblical reflection on the life of Christ, split into three acts: the Nativity, the Passion, and the promise of eternal life. Its choral sections are interspersed with solo soprano, mezzo, tenor and bass recitatives and arias. The vocals and orchestra succeeded in conveying the dramatic elements of the piece, and in doing so achieved an admirable intensity of sound. The first section showcased the many solo voices taking part, all of which gave excellent performances. Particular credit is due to soprano Elizabeth Atherton, whose jubilant rendition of ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ soared into the rafters of the theatre.
The choral section ‘And the glory of the Lord’ was a first-act highlight, its vivacious spirit sending spines tingling. The acoustics of the Sheldonian allowed for a wonderful clarity, well suited to the incredible volumes reached. Such dynamic peaks heightened the drama of a number of passages, particularly the choral ‘All we like sheep have gone astray’ and the solo ‘But who may abide the day of His coming.’ These juxtaposed beautifully with the more refined sections of the oratorio. The control displayed by tenor Daniel Auchincloss in the opening recitative, ‘Comfort ye my people,’ is worth mention, his quiet pensiveness markedly different from the bombast for which the Messiah is best known.
That said, the famous ‘Hallelujah’ chorus that closes the second act did not fail to disappoint. The audience traditionally rise at this point, in reference to the Messiah’s first performance, when George II was allegedly so inspired by the music that he stood up from his seat. The tradition’s inclusion here felt like both a nod to the past and a sign of the audience’s appreciation for the concert taking place before them. The layering of lively vocal parts here formed a powerful climax to the work’s second act.
Given the credentials of the Oxford Bach Choir and the London Mozart Players, a high-quality performance was expected, and one was delivered. Though by no means an aficionado of Baroque oratorios, the concert left me eager to submerge myself in Handel’s glorious music once more. As I exited the Sheldonian Theatre, I did so humming the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, and with a festive spring in my step.