REVIEW: York Early Music Christmas Festival, Yorkshire Bach Choir, 14/12/2019

Bass soloist Gareth Brynmor John

York Early Music Christmas Festival: Yorkshire Bach Choir/Baroque Soloists, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, December 14

THE York Early Music Christmas Festival finished brightly on Saturday with Handel’s Messiah before a packed house. Tempos were rapid, but that comes with the territory when Peter Seymour is at the helm (he sat at the harpsichord and even fingered it from time to time).

Nothing wrong with speed: it is widely thought to deliver excitement. But audiences, like electorates, are not easily fooled and Messiah is not really about excitement. Although traditionally wheeled out at Yuletide, its true focus is the message of Easter.

Mezzo soprano soloist Helen Charlston. Picture: Matthew Badham

One of Seymour’s soloists, mezzo Helen Charlston, appeared to realise this and took him on. He raced into her aria, He Was Despised – and she managed to slow him down. Thus her unaccompanied voicing of “despised” and “rejected”, with a little sob in the latter word, unexpectedly became the evening’s most telling moment.

The choir of 36 voices was impeccably on the ball, its diction superb and its staccato runs unimpeachably clear. Six tenors were not enough in this company and the bass line lacked its usual authority, but the upper voices – several countertenors included – were exemplary.

York soprano soloist Bethany Seymour. Picture: Jim PoynerJim Poyner

The best of the soloists was the bass Gareth Brynmor John, relaxed and forthright in equal measure and especially stirring in Why Do The Nations. In contrast, Gwilym Bowen’s increasingly effortful tenor verged on the operatic, although perfectly suited to Thou Shalt Break Them. Apart from her smooth I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, Bethany Seymour’s soprano arias were shrieky, with dodgy breath control.

No such problems with the tireless orchestra. Led by the spritely Lucy Russell, the strings laid a consistently stylish foundation. Yet relentless speed is only one of countless ways to treat this work. It would be nice to hear some of them occasionally.

Review by Martin Dreyer