During a chorus rehearsal for Messiah Sir Malcolm Sargent once remarked to a soprano, “I can’t see you, Madam, which means you won’t be able to see me.”
Back came the reply, “Don’t worry, Sir Malcolm, I saw you last year.”
Many conductors face a similar problem when tackling Handel’s greatest hit. Stick to what people know, or try something different?
Adrian Lucas’s approach with the City of Birmingham Choir seemed a bit of both on Friday, combining a familiar choral tradition of homogenous tone and steady tempi with hints of period practice (though not from the CBSO) in lightness of attack and snappy rhythms.
It was a satisfyingly polished reading, as you would expect from singers who know the work inside out, if not a particularly uplifting one: reverential, rather than revelatory.
Most highlights came from the soloists, especially counter tenor William Purefoy, who embellished da capo repeats in appropriate Baroque fashion and exploited the expressive power of appoggiaturas to marvellous effect.
His Thou art gone up on high came nearest to the showpiece of the whole work.
In his two key arias the tenor, Thomas Hobbs, also demonstrated stylistic awareness and impressive breath control in long phrases, qualities shared by soprano Paula Greenwood, whose alternative take on And lo! The angel of the Lord provided Eduardo Vassallo with a delightful cello obbligato.
To his credit David Soar eschewed over-dramatisation for a clean vocal line and impeccable diction.
It made for an elegantly supple But who may abide (given in its original bass version) and a spirited The trumpet shall sound that perfectly integrated voice and solo instrument.