Handel’s Messiah: Instruments of Time and Truth
Updated: Dec 16, 2022
Review: Instruments of Time and Truth Handel's Messiah, at University Church, Oxford, 9 December 2022.
[Disclosure: IT&T provided me with a ticket to this concert for the purposes of this review.]
After a disrupted few years, Oxford’s own Baroque orchestra, Instruments of Time and Truth, has brought back its historically informed Christmas performance of Handel’s Messiah. IT&T was founded by cellist Gabriel Amherst and double bass player Judith Evans in 2014 – to bring together all the solo standard Baroque musicians who just happen to live in, and around the Oxford area. We are lucky like that in Oxford.
Judith Evans, co-founder of IT&T.
After two years of not feeling very festive at this time of year, it’s taking me a little bit more time and effort to get into some semblance of Christmas spirit. For me, IT&T’s beautiful and thoughtful performance of Messiah has helped me conjure that gentle excitement of the approaching Christmas.
The welcome message of hope that flows through the Messiah was beautifully conveyed by the choir, the Oxford Consort of Voices, and the extraordinary soloists; soprano Rowan Pierce, alto Rebecca Leggett, tenor Daniel Norman and bass James Geidt. Despite being a last minute substitution, alto Rebecca Leggett was truly exceptional – her luscious voice and passionate delivery brought something new and exciting to the alto part.
This year, the soloists did not line up in front of the orchestra in the traditional format, but sang individually from University Church’s very high and very ornate pulpit. I’m not sure why this decision was made,* as in previous years in the same venue, the more traditional staging has always happened.
Concert master, Bojan Cicic leading the tuning, prior to the performance.
In my opinion, this innovation had positive and negative consequences. I’ll start with the cons so I can finish on a positive note. Singing from the pulpit meant that the singers were partially obscured. I hadn’t realised how important it is to see the full physicality of singers – from top to toe. A lot is communicated by singers through their whole body – as well as by seeing the other soloists’ (who were sitting out of sight) reactions. None of this subtlety was visible and I think something was lost as a result.
Violinist Jean Paterson and IT&T co-rounder, Gabriel Amhurst, during interval.
In the final chorus, when the soloists join the choir to sing the final celebration of what Christ’s sacrifice means for humanity – the soloists slotted in awkwardly at the back where ever they could find space - instead of standing up front joyfully leading the chorus. I felt the loss of this leadership.
First violin part.
On the positive side, having the soloists singing from the pulpit gave an extra dimension to the music, with the sources of sound coming from different locations. It felt entirely right that the soloists’ messages should be conveyed from on high.
With the focus solely on the music and the libretto, and not on the physicality of the singers the experience of listening became much more meditative and mindful than in previous years, when the eyes continually track the physical expression of the music – making this a very special experience.
IT&T has brought back to Oxford an exceptional performance of the Messiah, expressing all of its power, richness, strength and glory. It was, as always, a privilege to experience it.
*Update: 16 Dec 2022. IT&T kindly told me that the reason they chose to have soloists in the pulpit was as a covid precaution in 2021 - which was kept on because the soloists are more visible to a larger portion of the audience. I missed the fact that IT&T performed the Messiah in 2021 - apologies!
If you enjoyed reading about Instruments of Time and Truth, you can read my other IT&T reviews here. If you haven't yet finished your Christmas present shopping, you might find inspiration in my Christmas gift suggestions here.
Feature photo is of view from University Church.