Review: Chester Bach Singers Present Handel’s Messiah at Chester Cathedral 30th November 2013

REVIEW by Kate Sawallisch

Before the concert I wondered if the Messiah I was going to hear by the Chester Bach Singers and the 18th century Sinfonia would be full-bodied enough to fill Chester Cathedral, the choir having only 39 members and the 18th Century Sinfonia consisting of 16 members. And, later, after sitting down in the Cathedral and perusing the programme, I began to worry about whether I was going to be bored sitting through 53 pieces of choral and orchestral music. But as the choir and orchestra took their places a sense of something special about to happen began to fill me. By the time the choir starting singing “And the glory of the Lord” (piece number 4) I found myself being inexorably drawn into the story of Jesus’ life in a way that I have never been before. The small size of the choir and orchestra augmented by 4 very fine soloists created an intense, intimate atmosphere as the story of Jesus’s life, from the announcements of his coming in verses from the Old Testament through his birth, crucifixion and resurrection, began to unfold. It was a story set to glorious music performed on a human scale about a remarkable, but very human, man.

30-Nov-13: Handel's Messiah performed by Martin Bussey with Chester Bach Singers, the 18th Century Sinfonia, Eleanor Gregory (soprano), Katie Bray (alto), Richard Dowling (tenor) and Louis Hurst (bass)

30-Nov-13: Handel’s Messiah performed by Martin Bussey with Chester Bach Singers, the 18th Century Sinfonia, Eleanor Gregory (soprano), Katie Bray (alto), Richard Dowling (tenor) and Louis Hurst (bass)

The soloists were well chosen – their voices suited their roles. However, Katie Bray, contralto and Louis Hurst, bass baritone stood apart for they were outstanding for their total engagement in the story. They rarely looked at their copy. Instead, they sang to the audience as a story teller tells a story to his audience. They told their part of the story with commitment and intensity. And when they weren’t singing they were listening and responding to the music. I was riveted by their performances and will be following their careers with great interest.

The choir sang well together although their very average diction let them down. It is extremely difficult to sing and be understood. Having sung with the Halle Choir first under the direction of Fanny Cooke and latterly with Madeleine Venner, I began to hear and understand the importance of good diction in taking a choral performance from very good to outstanding as the Halle Choir most certainly is. I believe that if the Bach Singers put more effort into perfecting their diction they would instantly become one of the top choirs in the North West.

The soprano section was particularly outstanding. The part is very high and very demanding for the soprano voice and I expected them to struggle to stay in tune. But I was surprised and delighted as they soared upwards with ease and as one voice. I was pleased for them. I could relax and enjoy them. Unsurprisingly they were euphoric after the performance!

There is a wonderful balance between the size of this choir and orchestra which is very pleasing. Overall, I rate this performance of the Messiah as the best one I have ever heard. Well done to Martin Bussey for leading this wonderful choir and orchestra. And a big thank you to all of the musicians for a memorable evening.

Kate Sawallisch
06 December 2013