The Swaledale Festival begins with an authentic performance of Handel’s greatest work.
As the Dean reminded us in his witty address, it may be the Swaledale Festival’s 50th Anniversary season, but Ripon Cathedral which was the setting for this performance of Messiah is celebrating its 1,350th year. The spectacular landscapes of the Dales surround this tiny city, and the opening night begins a Festival which highlights not only great music but inspirational settings.
Handel’s great work requires the same kind of combination of forces as Bach’s Passions, with Orchestra, Soloists and Chorus blending in pursuit of the spirit of the piece. The Swaledale Festival Orchestra is made up of Baroque specialists, and this performance used gut strings and natural wind instruments tuned to A=415 Hz pitch, which is a semitone lower than modern pitch. Doing so presents its own challenges, all of which the players surmounted under the unflappable, unfailingly sympathetic direction of Peter Stallworthy. Special mention must be made of the shimmering violins, led by Jo Lawrence, and the brazen yet silvery trumpets (Adrian Woodward, Pete Mankarios.)
The Festival’s director had made the right choices in terms of the soloists: four young singers all trained in the Oxbridge Choral tradition, all confident in their roles and all in sympathy with the style. Zoë Brookshaw was new to us, but it won’t be long before hers is a well-known name; her even, perfectly pitched tone, her naturally sweet voice and her unaffected manner all made for ideal interpretations of the soprano part. William Towers and Nicholas Mogg, alto and bass respectively, are much better known and both sang with fluency and dramatic impulse. Towers’ light countertenor seemed at times to fade a little at the conclusion of lines, but his sensitivity and poetic interpretation compensated. Mogg’s voice and manner are appropriately stern for his arias, and he gave a strong showing in ‘The Trumpet shall Sound.’
“…the Cathedral… is celebrating its 1,350th year”
Nicholas Pritchard is well known to UK audiences and could be said to be ‘the Evangelist du jour,’ unsurprisingly given the directness and crispness of his singing and his mastery of florid passages. He was not in quite his best voice on this occasion but nevertheless gave an impressive ‘Ev’ry Valley’ and striking ‘Thou shalt break them.’
The Chorus, made up of two local groups coming together for this occasion, coped well with the demands made on them by the music, although they clearly needed a better balance between the deeper and lighter voices – time to recruit a few more basses! It took a little time for them to get into their stride, but by the evening’s second half their responses were crisper and more confident.
Le tout Swaledale and beyond seemed to have turned out for this event, and were rewarded with a most satisfying evening.
• There are some 49 further events in the Festival – details can be found here.