Handel Messiah Eboracum

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Eboracum Baroque/Chris Parsons
rec. 2020, Saint Mary’s Church, Swaffham Prior, UK

Two things drew me to this particular recording. One, of course, was the music: Messiah is a rich masterpiece, as satisfying for its libretto as for Handel’s wonderful music. I always enjoy listening to it but, even more, I enjoy singing in performances, and down the years I’ve had the pleasure of doing so on many occasions. The second reason is the origins of Eboracum Baroque. Chris Parsons formed this ensemble of professional singers and instrumentalists in 2012 at the University of York. I am an alumnus of that university, though I studied there several decades before Parsons and his colleagues. I was interested, therefore, to hear this group in action.

I think it’s important to make clear that this is not a performance of Messiah which involves big-name soloists. Rather, it is an ensemble performance – one might use the term ‘collegiate’ – in which all the solos are sung by members of the choir. It’s also a performance on a small, intimate, scale. So, there are just eleven singers in the choir (4/3/2/2) and I think I’m right I saying that all of these singers get a turn in the solo spotlight. The orchestra, too, is small, consisting of just nine players: two violins, a single viola, cello and double bass; two trumpets, timpani and chamber organ/harpsichord, both of which are played by the same person, Sebastian Gillot. The size of the forces involved means that one does occasionally lose a bit of weight and grandeur – for instance in ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ – but I found I soon adjusted to the scale and I appreciated the compensating benefits, which include great clarity of texture and nimble articulation.

I have quite a number of recordings of Messiah in my collection and, though I haven’t checked in detail, I suspect that were I to do so I would find that no two are absolutely identical in terms of the music that is actually performed. This should not surprise us: Handel himself “tinkered” with the score, composing more than one version of some of the arias and pragmatically varying the constituent parts of the score according to the forces available to him for any one performance. Subsequent conductors have also made selections and variants: Chris Parsons is no exception. One of the textual decisions that particularly pleased me was his choice of the 12/8 version of ‘Rejoice greatly’. The use of compound time always seems to me to put more of a spring into the music than is achievable with the 4/4 version; that enhances the joy of the piece. Here, Naomi Sturges offers a bright, eager performance. My only slight regret is that I wish Parsons had eased the tempo just a fraction more in the central section (‘He is the righteous Saviour’). We get a significantly truncated version of the bass aria, ‘Why do the nations’. This is sung by John Holland Avery and I must admit I wasn’t wholly impressed: he seems to me to be stretched by the topmost notes and the admittedly very challenging passagework isn’t as clearly defined as I’d like. Avery also sings ‘The trumpet shall sound’ where, once again, he sounds a bit effortful in the upper compass of the voice part. The sterling silver trumpet of Brendon Musk is very pleasing to hear, though. Chris Parsons omits the central section of this aria and also, of course, the da capo.

I do have one serious reservation about Chris Parson’s textual choices: in Part Two, the so-called Passion arias are omitted completely. I looked in vain in the notes on the group’s website to see if there was any explanation for this. I have to be honest and say that I find the omission of these four tenor solos inexplicable and very regrettable. Not only do we lose some wonderful music as a result but, furthermore, the immaculate construction of Charles Jennens’ libretto – a masterly element of Messiah – is severely compromised. This short sequence tells of the crucifixion and death of Christ and then the aria ‘But Thou didst not leave his soul in hell’ is, arguably, the fulcrum of the theology behind the whole oratorio; in one short aria Handel and Jennens pivot from the despair of Christ’s death to the promise of Redemption which is more fully explored in Part Three. I have never heard a performance of the oratorio, either live or on disc, which omits this sequence and I find it both disappointing and damaging. If the disc running time was an issue, then surely it would have made sense to include ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ and ‘He was despised’ on disc one, as many other recordings do.

The disappointment over the omission of the Passion arias is heightened because I should have liked to hear tenor Gareth Edmunds sing them. Though many of the soloists give a good account of themselves, I think he’s the pick of the bunch. I very much liked the clear, tasteful singing of Edmunds in the tenor recit and aria right at the start; I also liked his exciting rendition of ‘Thou shalt break them’. All four sopranos make a good showing: I’ve already referenced Naomi Sturges; I also enjoyed the two arias in Part Three (including, of course, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’) as sung by Elen Lloyd Roberts. The alto soloists sing intelligently, not least in the matter of ornamentation, but I don’t think their voices are particularly distinctive.

But where the singers really come into their own is when all eleven of them combine in the choruses. It’s the chorus work that really impresses me about this performance. There’s admirable clarity, for example, in the lithe, joyful performance of ‘For unto us a child is born’ and they are really on their mettle in the agile ‘His yoke is easy’. In Part Two, ‘Surely he hath born our griefs’, taken swiftly, has excellent bite, and in ‘He trusted in God’ Christ’s mockery by the Jewish onlookers is very well articulated. There’s jubilation in the Hallelujah Chorus, even if one has heard performances with more weight. The last two choruses go very well Parsons and his forces are excellent in ‘Worthy is the Lamb’. The lengthy ‘Amen’ chorus seems quite relaxed at the start but Parsons is careful not to show his hand too early and builds the movement very convincingly so that by the end there’s a proper sense of exaltation.

The very small orchestra acquit themselves well; in a band this size, there’s no hiding place. They are recorded quite closely and when the chorus are singing this means that singers and instruments are well balanced against each other. I have to admit, though, that despite the skill of the players, there is a certain thinness of tone when the orchestra is playing by itself. Ideally, I’d have liked an extra player on each string desk (except the double bass) but I appreciate that Chris Parsons has to work with the resources available to him. And it must be said that the slender instrumental forces mean that the performance has a good sense of intimacy.

Chris Parsons conducts the oratorio very well; it’s obvious that he injects energy into his performers and he’s attentive to points of detail. There were one or two details that surprised me; for example, a bit of rhythmic dotting in the chorus parts in ‘Let us break their bonds asunder’. That’s not in my vocal score but, of course, it may well be that an edition that’s more authoritative in such matters than my Novello score has been used. Just occasionally, I wasn’t wholly convinced by a tempo; I’ve already mentioned the middle section of ‘Rejoice greatly’ and I think that a marginally more expansive tempo for ‘He was despised’ might have encouraged the soloist to sing more expressively. However, such moments were rare. Overall, Parsons favours fleet tempi and if you like that, which I do, then I think you’ll find his interpretation convincing.

Eboracum Baroque didn’t mess about when they arranged the technical side of this project. The recording was produced by Adrian Peacock and engineered by David Hinitt, a seasoned pair if ever there was one. They’ve produced very good results; the recording is clear and present. The documentation is a little unconventional, at least in my experience. The notes and texts can be accessed either via a QR code or via the ensemble’s website – I took the latter as the easier option (for me) and found that there’s a useful note about the work by Stephen Rose and the full libretto with French and German translations. Oddly, this libretto includes the Passion arias, even though they’re not performed.

Overall, I think this collegiate performance of Messiah is accomplished and enjoyable with particularly good choral contributions. I hope it will raise awareness of Eboracum Baroque, for they are clearly an accomplished ensemble. Handel’s great oratorio is not just a piece for Christmas, despite the seasonal tradition which has grown up around it; arguably, it’s more of an Easter work. However, I did my final listening to this performance right at the start of December and it proved to be an ideal way to unwind after a particularly stressful day at work.

John Quinn

Previous review: John Durrant (May 2022)

Availability: Eboracum Baroque