Glorious Messiah is Christmas treat

Handel's remarkable oratorio Messiah is a staple of many people's Christmas musical diet. The Britten Sinfonia performed it in Norwich, marking the debut of their new choir. EMILY ASPIN reports.

Arguably the most famous oratorio ever written and certainly Handel's best known work, Messiah needs little introduction.

Composed in a staggering 24 days while the composer was living in London, Messiah was first performed in Dublin in 1742 where it received a rapturous welcome.

It's a sort of 18th Century musical which can be appreciated on many levels, since it contains hummable tunes, rousing choruses, virtuoso arias and many memorable moments

It was originally intended as a thought provoking work for Easter and Lent, but has become more of a Christmas tradition and has become a staple in many people's Christmas musical diet.

The Britten Sinfonia performed the piece at Norwich Theatre Royal in what was undoubtedly one of the musical high points of the festive period.

The performance included a superb line-up of world-class international soloists, including soprano Elin Manahan Thomas, countertenor Iestyn Davies, tenor Robert Murray and bass-baritone David Soar.

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And for the first time ever, the Sinfonia's professional new vocal ensemble, Britten Sinfonia Voices, joined the concert for what promises to be a festive spectacle.

The group consists of emerging talent alongside more experienced singers to ensure the next generation of performers are cultivated by learning from those around them.

Thomas Gould, leading violinist who combines a hectic solo career with his temporary position of leader of the ensemble, after stepping into the shoes of former leader Jacqueline Shave, said: 'Britten Sinfonia Voices is a big new development to the orchestra so it's going to be nice to forge those new connections and everyone's very excited about the quality of that new choir.

'Messiah is obviously a piece we have a close association with having recorded it with Stephen Layton and Polyphony, so it will be lovely to revisit that. I don't think we have done it since we made our very first well regarded recording of it.'

'Messiah audiences will see an orchestra brimming with vitality and brilliance, which the new chorus will be matching, note for note,' said chorus director Eamonn Dougan. 'In the age of X Factor and people seeking their 15 minutes of fame, come and hear a truly great work by a true master which has inspired and moved listeners for hundreds of years'.

Like several of Handel's oratorios, Messiah is epic in its scope and breadth.

'Messiah is always a wonderful event where the power of the music envelopes the audience. It truly is one of the most fantastic masterpieces,' said Sinfonia cello player Caroline Dearnley.

'It is a wonderful spectacle; there is a large orchestra with trumpets, fantastic string playing and amazing soloists. It's got something for everybody.'

The Messiah performance is the start of a particularly exciting time for the orchestra as it will mark the beginning of an exciting collaboration working very closely with the Voices.

Thomas Gould explains: 'Another thing on the horizon which is really a very big project for us is the Britten Sinfonia Concentric Paths, which comes to Norwich Theatre Royal on February 26. This tour will go to many new venues including our first visits to Dijon and Dublin, and it's our New York debut as well. It will be really good to tour such a brilliant programme with Tom Ad�s conducting and Pekka Kuusisto on Violin who are such amazing collaborators.'

The orchestra's busy programme meant that Thomas has been thrown in at the deep end in his role as leader.

'Jacqueline is a very popular and well loved figure, so it was a tough job to try and fill those shoes,' he reflects. 'I have done my best and have had a pretty good year and people generally have been quite nice to me. Jackie is back in April, so you've got me for a few months yet!'

'It's been a good year, I've had a great time leading the orchestra, it's been a particularly varied year and we've had some very different projects. The first thing I did in the new capacity as leader was a project with Angela Hewitt playing piano concertos by Mozart and Bach, which was wonderful. I also got to direct Bach Schlossberg variations in that programme so that was an amazing start to the year. Other highlights have been the 'At Lunch' programme playing petites de tangos.

'Actually the project we are just getting to the end of called Brook Septet by my friend Charlie Piper is a piece I have wanted to play for a long time. So this has been a really enjoyable week to.'

And though they perform all over the world, the orchestra always enjoy taking to the Theatre Royal stage.

'Norwich is a very friendly place to play,' says Thomas. 'Sometimes venues in London particularly can feel a little bit stuffy and formal; particularly somewhere like the Wigmore Hall which has this amazing tradition but does feel a little bit straight laced in a way. Whereas Norwich doesn't have that feeling it's just very friendly and welcoming and we just feel loved here.'

Britten Sinfonia perform Messiah at Norwich Theatre Royal on December 18, �36-�6.50, 01603 630000,