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Newbury baroque ensemble's moving Messiah has special resonance

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Burghclere Baroque: Handel’s Messiah, at The Church of the Ascension, Burghclere, on Wednesday, December 22.
Review by HUGH COBBE

Performances of Handel’s best-known oratorio come in many shapes and sizes: The first performance in Dublin in April 1742 had a chorus of 32 voices, whereas the number of performers in concerts given after Handel’s death (such is the enduring popularity of the work) rose to the five hundreds and in the 19th century grew into the thousands.

In the later 20th century, as a fashion took hold for recreating conditions which might have been familiar to Handel himself, numbers retreated again and thus the newly-formed Burghclere Baroque Ensemble gave a splendid performance of the oratorio with just 10 singers accompanied by nine players.

Burghclere Baroque, picture by Philip Oldham
Burghclere Baroque, picture by Philip Oldham

The ensemble was led by Theresa Caudle and around her she had gathered a group of five soloists; the sopranos Janet Coxwell and Philippa Hyde, who shared between them the soprano arias, the countertenor Tom Lilburn, the tenor Ruairi Bowen and the bass Stuart O’Hara.

When not singing solo, these singers joined five further singers to form a very effective chorus which at the work’s climactic moments filled the church.

Particularly memorable among the arias were Rejoice greatly, He was despised and rejected, Why do the nations and I know that my Redeemer liveth. Among the choruses there was particular clarity in the more contrapuntal of them such as And with his stripes and precision in the more sprightly For unto us a child is born, while the climactic Hallelujah chorus and the final Worthy is the lamb and Amen resounded through the church, supported by two trumpets (one of which came to the fore in the bass aria The trumpet shall sound) and tympani.

Burghclere Baroque, picture by Philip Oldham
Burghclere Baroque, picture by Philip Oldham

The other instrumentalists, led by Theresa Caudle, played immaculately on period instruments while the continuo remained in the background, expertly binding the whole ensemble together. The whole added up to a moving and uplifting experience.

The performance gave this writer personal pleasure firstly because his great x5 grandfather was the Dean of Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin, who gave permission for his choristers to take part in the first performance in the music hall at Fishamble Street in 1742 and, secondly, because locked in a cupboard in his office at the British Library for many years was Handel’s autographed score of Messiah.

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