Northern Sinfonia, Nicholas McGegan at BBC Proms (Royal Albert Hall, London)
Northern Sinfonia, Nicholas McGegan: Prom 68 – Messiah
Guy Dammann, The Guardian
There has been some debate of late as to whether audiences should stand for the Hallelujah chorus in honour of a national tradition supposedly begun by George II. Certainly, those among the Proms audience who weren’t already on their feet jumped to them when the familiar jubilatory strains rose from the orchestra. The surprise lay in the fact that they weren’t immediately knocked off them again, such was the sheer volume of sound marshalled by the 350-odd singers drawn from seven youth choirs.
The tradition of massed-choir performances of Messiah is almost as old as that of standing for the Hallelujah. Less traditional is that these performances be excellent. From the angular polyphony of “Let us break their bonds” and the running filigree of “For unto us”, to the homophonic splendour of “Since by man came death”, no stray consonant nor wandering semiquaver could be heard. In terms of expression, too, the singing was sensitively conceived and brilliantly executed.
Much of the credit should go to Nicholas McGegan, who led with even judgment mixed with infectious enthusiasm. The Northern Sinfonia rose well to the occasion, as did the soloists, particularly Dominique Labelle’s nightingale soprano and Matthew Rose’s thundering bass. If there was a blot on the pastoral landscape it came from some bizarre backstage bleating, perhaps in anticipation of the famous “All we like sheep” chorus. Evidently we don’t like them that much because its source disappeared in the interval.
There are very few British institutions impervious to our national love of self-mockery. But Messiah, when performed like this, should be one of them.