Harrogate Choral Society rises to challenge

Harrogate Choral Society at the Royal Hall in Harrogate.
Harrogate Choral Society at the Royal Hall in Harrogate.

Review by Anthony Ogus

Harrogate Choral Society, + Amici Ensemble, Ripon Cathedral.

The Harrogate Choral Society can rarely have had to face such a formidable challenge as that posed by Handel’s Dixit Dominus, the centrepiece of their concert at Ripon Cathedral.

Liberated from his roots in Northern Germany, the young composer was experiencing all that was on offer in Rome when he wrote this, and for the setting of Psalm 110, he exuberantly put to use all musical techniques that by then he had acquired.

The difficulties for a choir are immense: scurrying and scampering up and down the register; phrases with awkward intervals; for the sopranos, sustaining high notes for what must seem an eternity; and fugal episodes requiring precision of entry.

Add to this the importance of the text. Handel relished the Old Testament imagery of power and anger, so that there is an emphasis on words such as dominare, confregit and conquassabit.

The problem was that in the reverberant acoustics of Ripon Cathedral, some of the clarity, both of the text and of the musical phrasing, was lost and the brilliance of the choral writing dulled.

This would have happened with any performers and it is to the immense credit of the choir that they were able, notwithstanding this handicap, to provide such a convincing account of the score.

The conductor Andrew Padmore kept a firm grip on the Handel-bars and, while not applying the brakes unnecessarily, did not permit any free-wheeling.

In the second half of the work, in particular, the hammer blows of destruction in Judicabit in nationibus were frighteningly realised and contrasted beautifully with the unsettling harmonies of the water flowing in De torrente in via bibet.

Understandably, after the interval, the performers were all more relaxed with the simpler musical idiom of Vivaldi’s Gloria.

The acoustics were kinder to this work and we were able to appreciate the subtleties brought to it, with variation in the dynamics and vocal colour.

The unison of voices in Gratis agimus tibi had a luxuriant richness and there was a crispness to the dotted rhythms of Domine Fili unigenite.

Aided by the trumpets, which like the rest of the Amici Ensemble throughout the evening provided solid support, the piece came to a triumphant, not to say rollicking, end.

The female soloists took a little time to get into their stride, but when it came to their duets, the two sopranos Carleen Ebbs and Catherine Pope were a mellifluous pair. Nevertheless the individual who captured everyone’s hearts was James Micklethwaite.

Given by his teacher Andrew Padmore a surprise additional solo, Handel’s Where’er You Walk, this lad aged 15 – I repeat 15 – revealed a tenor voice of astonishing purity of tone and immaculate diction.

Please go carefully with him, Mr Padmore; he should have a great future.