'Whatever I had been expecting, it wasn’t that': The English Concert reviewed

'Whatever I had been expecting, it wasn’t that': The English Concert reviewed

Young composer Lillie Harris reviews an extraordinary performance of Handel's Messiah given by The English Concert at Bristol's Old Vic Theatre...
All photos by Jack Offord

Friday 7th April 2017 was my first trip to Bristol, and quite apart from the wonderful opportunity to have such an in-depth discussion with someone with as many intelligent things to say as Harry Bicket, Artistic Director of The English Concert, it was a beautifully sunny day. The sky was peppered with hot air balloons and there was a party atmosphere in Castle Park.

As sunset approached, I took my seat in Bristol Old Vics iconic theatre and awaited the performance.

The theatre was packed, with the odd empty seat (according to the steward in the standing area) due to restricted sight-lines as the performance was to be filmed.

On stage were two riser blocks for audience members, a large wall for visual projections, and the small orchestra (distributed either side of the stage). The colour scheme was very dark, with the musicians all in relatively casual but smart clothes, in varying shades of black, navy, or grey. A harpsichord was perched on a ledge hovering precariously next to the promenading pit - the stool had roughly an inch to spare, and the only way to get onto it was to step over the wall in front of the Dress Circle. I watched intently, but somehow missed the split second when Harry Bicket arrived, as if by magic, to start the performance.

However, the concert began with an address by director Tom Morris, who was charming and engaging, and instructed us to applaud at will. Be careful what you wish for, Tom: making classical music more accessible by removing some old customs can result in sore hands.

There was indeed much to applaud. The first half was extremely reflective and moving, with the chorus entering in procession from the back of the stage, holding candles, and sinking sadly down around the grey bier upon which rested The Beloved, with bright red ‘blood’ stains across his chest. This character, whilst dead for the majority of the first half of the concert and never speaking, later interacted with the performers (and audience at the back of the stage) in order to enhance the emotivity of the work.

This set a clear tone for the performance, and what followed explored the myriad facets of grief wonderfully. I felt the soloists were utterly sublime in their exploration of their own characters, something that I had not seen in performance before, and which I felt was very successful.

Joshua Ellicott (tenor) set a high bar with ‘Comfort ye’, in which his gentle tone was matched by his manner, approaching each member of the chorus and helping them to their feet. Later, he expressed huge passion in ‘All they that see him’ whilst confronting the chorus, who had just enacted spurning The Beloved’s desperate reaches for help before he was lifted into the air, and left suspended there for several movements.

Bass Brindley Sherratt was a force of nature: in a long dark coat and solid black boots, he would not have been out of place in The Matrix. His grief was so raw and angry, he literally fought his way onto the stage for ‘Why do the nations’, which made his calmer and more accepting reappearance for ‘Behold, I tell you a mystery’ even more cathartic.

Soprano Julia Doyle was brilliant; she seemed very natural both when singing, and when simply acting amongst the others on stage. ‘Rejoice greatly’ stood out particularly, with just a solo violin accompanying to increase the intimacy, with the chorus stepped back and unlit. I especially enjoyed her duet with contralto Catherine Wyn-Rogers for ‘He shall feed his flock’ - the two women faced each other, holding hands, and there was such genuine warmth on stage that I made a special note of it, on paper in the dark of the audience. Catherine’s overall characterisation was perhaps my favourite thing of the whole performance; she moulded her body into such recognisable shapes, with sagging shoulders, arms too heavy to hold up, an attitude of quiet despair. Her voice quavered a fraction in ‘He was despised’ and for a moment I thought she might actually be in tears. Remembering that moment now, I feel myself welling up.

The English Concert players were just excellent, keeping the whole thing together throughout the entire work and playing with such crisp attention to detail. Within the theatre, the overall fairly dry acoustic meant the instruments sounded closer and more immediate than they already were - as I was fortunate to be sitting in the front row of pit seats (sharing the row, unexpectedly, with the young, treble soloist for ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive’).

Despite being on the far edge of the stage on his harpsichord ledge, Harry Bicket maintained precise control over the players at all times. His conducting included arm gestures when he could, but when he was playing the harpsichord, all he needed to do, apparently, was nod his head and every player was with him. Even knowing the calibre of these players beforehand, I was nonetheless impressed with their dedication.

Playing on historical instruments at A=415, the range of sound from the strings was beautiful. From very rough and active in ‘Thus saith the Lord’, agitated in ‘But who may abide’ through to incredibly soft timbres at the end of ‘He shall feed his flock’. There was a beautiful dialogue between the contralto, the celli and violas in ‘He was despised’ that felt particularly warm. Throughout, you could hear every note they played, even when pushed to the limit in ‘He was despised’ where I felt the raw pulsing from the ensemble made the pitches of secondary importance to the acoustic effect of the rasping bows.

The wind instruments had some exciting things to do during the performance. Whilst the oboe and bassoon were quartered in little chambers (like caves) either side of the stage, the trumpets had no fixed abode. They first appeared up in the gallery almost directly behind me, then reappeared on stage for the ‘Hallelujah chorus’.

Activity was definitely a theme in the performance - whilst there were many moments of stillness, there was also a lot of movement on stage: interactions between singers, interactions with The Beloved, a short spell of foot washing of the on-stage audience members by The Beloved, and the chorus as well as the trumpets moving around the theatre, and singing in groups spread out amongst us for ‘Since by man came death’. The wash bowl returned towards the end of the performance for all the singers - they had symbolically washed The Beloved during ‘He shall feed his flock’, then each chorus member reapplied the blood stains by hand during ‘And with his stripes we are healed’, and then in acceptance and consolidation of their grief they washed their hands to ‘Worthy is the lamb’. I felt the lighting during this penultimate chorus was particularly beautiful: with all singers towards the front of the stage, the bright lighting from above caught their hair primarily, turning them into a show of force in their togetherness but with almost literal halos around their heads.

The final piece of action saw the large wall at the back of the stage - on which had been projected images of burning paper, running water, and blood to emphasise various stages - break apart into four pieces. A bright light shone through from behind, creating a cross made of light.

Apart from the words, that was perhaps the most religiously symbolic moment of the evening, and although it was a grand and definitive moment on which to end, I almost felt it detracted from the strong message of humanity and our shared emotional journey that had been such a unifying idea, woven between such a range of arias, recitatives, and choruses.

Nonetheless, what better way to demonstrate the timelessness of art and creation, and once again to celebrate our ability to empathise across centuries.

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