The Organ

Handel: Messiah

Hastings Philharmonic Choir with Roger Wilcock
9th April 2005

One of the most valuable reasons for attending a local performance of Messiah - apart from the musical felicities - can be the chance it gives the potentially jaded music critic to assess the way current musicological thinking has filtered down to the local level. Hastings Philharmonic Choir, under their new conductor Roger Wilcock must be symptomatic of vast numbers of choral societies across the country; well honed and accurate, surprisingly pleasing top registers from the Sopranos, a fine Alto line and just enough men to balance the forces. Choral singing throughout was crisp and well-phrased, with rhythms under control and the balance across the sections generally even throughout. At about fifty singers this was not a vast choral undertaking, but then the acoustic of St Mary-in-the-Castle welcomes smaller musical forces and the sound easily filled the building without ever becoming stodgy. The small orchestral force comfortably balanced the choral force with particularly fine playing from the oboes and bassoons. Shirley Carey's harpsichord playing impressed, with many telling details, though the lack of an organ in the more extrovert sections became increasingly evident towards the end.

As to the approach, for the chorus and orchestra it was as if the last half century had not happened. For all that the forces were small, the tempi were constantly on the slow side with little sense of baroque dance to underpin any of the numbers. More damagingly, Roger Wilcock insisted on pausing between items and, while the audience maintained an exemplary silence, this very silence affected the flow and pace of the music. While individual items had great beauty it became an evening of individual delights rather than building a structure.

The same tended to be true of the soloists. Gary Marriott ornamented the tenor line with aplomb, raising the sense of frisson and excitement in all of his solos. By contrast Jozik Koc kept strictly to the Watkins Shaw edition, singing pleasingly but never straying outside the Edwardian. Anne Whiteman's alto solos allowed the occasional indulgence which was pleasing and could obviously have gone further. Alison Barlow produces beauty of line in the soprano part but did nothing to surprise us. Handel expected more of his singers and so should we.

While the small forces suited both the building and our understanding of eighteenth century practise, this performance - enjoyable and well crafted as it certainly was - fell between two stools. We may have moved away from a Huddersfield Choral monolith but we have yet to find the lightness and rhythm the smaller forces can bring, and the potential reawakening of the music.