Two things are often forgotten about the ‘Messiah: that it was actually written for Easter, not Christmas, and that its original audience would have been very well-heeled - seats at ten shillings and sixpence were the equivalent of top-price opera seats today.
Only in Victorian England did it become the quintessential expression of the amateur choral tradition, sometimes involving as many as 4,000 singers - a remarkable thought, considering how musically taxing it is, with the final ‘Amen’ alone being an intricate riot of polyphony and counterpoint.
The version which conductor Nicholas McGegan brought to the Proms was the apotheosis of that tradition, but the regular quartet of soloists was complemented by hundreds of young co-stars, each of whose regional battalions deserves mention. So step forward the CBSO Youth Orchestra, the Halle Youth Choir, the Quay Voices from Gateshead, the RSCM Millennium Youth Choir, the Scunthorpe Co-operative Junior Choir, and the National Youth Choirs of Britain and Wales. You made a wonderful sound, with a lightness and freshness one never hears from more physically mature outfits. And you negotiated your rapidly ornamented melodic lines with entirely professional precision. I have never heard a more uplifting ‘Messiah’, or a choral event which more perfectly answered the requirements of the auditorium’s vast space.
McGegan may be a period-performance man, but his tempi had no period fussiness: what he brought out was the sheer drama of the work, in which almost every chorus and aria is an emotional roller-coaster. I found it initially hard to accept Dominique Labelle’s soprano - she seemed to switch between two very different timbres - but the other soloists were superb throughout. Patricia Bardon’s mezzo had a gliding silkiness which made a lovely foil to John Mark Ainsley’s exquisite tenor and Matthew Rose’s perfectly-projected bass. Every so often, in this 130-minute marathon, we got a moment of magic: ethereal calm as the female soloists sang ‘He shall feed his flock’; Ainsley singing ‘They rebuke hath broken his heart’ with poise and plangency; Rose thundering ‘The trumpet shall sound’ while a real trumpet sounded a golden fanfare beside him; meanwhile the Northern Sinfonia’s playing was a constant delight.
The entire hall stood in time-honoured manner for the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’: it was nice to be informed by Aled Jones, in a prefatory speech, that Radio 3 has a plan to get the whole nation singing that chorus by Christmas.