Those who know me know how much I love Handel’s Messiah. At this time of year, it’s my soundtrack to Christmas cake making and (if alone) I merrily sing along to it on long car journeys. I booked ages ago for Royal Northern SInfonia’s in a couple of weeks time, but that didn’t stop me putting tonight’s performance by Dunelm Consort and Players in Durham straight into my diary when it was announced.
Two things about this performance stood out as soon as I looked at the programme sheet. Firstly – rather than just four soloists, there were fifteen, almost all of whom were also members of the chorus. The other was the orchestra, expanded beyond the usual strings, trumpets, keyboard and timpani to include woodwind and double basses.
The expanded orchestra was one of many things that made this Messiah so enjoyable. Double-bass player Gordon Callendar and bassoonist Tom Cameron really gave us a chance to enjoy Handel’s funky bass lines, making the fast movements in particular really exciting. I also relished the added colour from the oboes (Leo Zagorac and Louis Sanders) throughout but particularly in ‘And with his stripes’ and ‘He trusted in God’.
It was impressive that the Dunelm Consort could field enough soloists that almost every single number was taken by a different person. Among my highlights, tenor Tom Klafkowski set the mood for the evening with a particularly joyful ‘Ev’ry Valley’; bass James Gordon offered lovely contrasts of light and shade in ‘The people that walked in darkness’ and soprano George Daniel was all shining brightness in a beautifully committed ‘Rejoice greatly’. Fabian Tindale-Geere and Matt Holloway-Strong both stood out for their security through tricky runs and the excitement that they gave respectively to ‘Thus saith the Lord’ and ‘Thou shalt break them’. Soprano Beth Yates was polished and sincere in ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’, with a lovely little ornament on ‘first fruits’ at the end. The solos ended as well as they had started with Samuel Davie’s rich warm tone in an excellent ‘The trumpet shall sound’, with glittering trumpet accompaniment from Tom Parker.
This Messiah was, however, very much a team effort and the chorus were absolutely excellent throughout. Conductor Daniel Cook (Organist and Master of the Choristers at Durham Cathedral) took the fast choruses at a lively pace and the heft of the extra bass section in the orchestra meant that they had plenty of punch. To begin with, a few individual voices across the parts stood out but the blend improved with every movement. All the long semi-quaver runs were tight and precise and there was some gorgeous phrasing, beginning with a swinging ‘Glory to God’. The chorus swept a lovely arc through the ‘gone astray’ sections of ‘All we like sheep’ and the slow coda to this movement was deliciously rich. The fast movements were so infectious, I just wanted to dance and although it was a little distracting, I can’t really blame some of the back row of the chorus for having a bit of a bop.
A live ‘Hallelujah’ always gives me goosebumps and as the full audience sprang to their feet, this evening was no exception.This was actually my first live Messiah since lockdown. I briefly remembered the sadness of taking part in an online, muted singalong Hallelujah on the first Covid Easter, and I remembered how hard it was to imagine ever going to a live concert again. There was definitely a Hallelujah ringing through my heart.
As the evening came to an end (slightly shorter than Messiahs, as Dunelm did cut some movements), we enjoyed a solid ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ that blossomed in the ‘blessing and honour’ section. Daniel Cook made an effective gear change at the start of the Amen to give everyone space to grow again – the string interludes here were lyrical and a nice contrast before the final explosion of trumpets and joy at the end.
This was Dunelm Consort and Players’ most ambitious project to date, and they pulled it off with panache – with an audience to match and the full Town Hall giving them a well-deserved standing ovation.
Photo credit: Shoaib / Dunelm Consort and Players