Polished chorus shows its class


{TABLE} Messiah ...................... Handel {/TABLE} THERE'S no shortage of Messiahs in Ireland around Christmas time. But the Messiah given at the University Concert Hall in Limerick last Wednesday and Thursday could be seen in advance to have something to distinguish it from all of its seasonal fellows. It was the only Messiah being given in Ireland to benefit from the services of a professional chorus, the National Chamber Choir, who were making their second annual Messiah outing with the Irish Chamber Orchestra under Roger Vignoles.

The National Chamber Choir, with fewer than 20 singers, make a more finely balanced and musically cogent group than many an amateur chorus several times their size. The consistent clarity of articulation in the running semiquavers of "And He shall purify" was a glorious substitute for the rather generalised sense of bounce this sort of Handelian writing tends to evoke from amateurs.

These young professional singers carry their choral lines with individual character, though the sopranos were a bit too vibrato laden for Handel and the altos inclined to lean into the limelight for no good musical reason. Vignoles set the choir some tasks they didn't quite master on this occasion ("His yoke is easy" was too trippingly fast while the closing "Amen" was slow enough to border on leaden), but the overall impression of the choral singing was of welcome illumination and clarity.

The line up of soloists included English tenor Martyn Hill, who sounded as stylish a Handelian as you could wish for and showed an acute and communicative responsiveness to the import of the words. He managed to take greater freedoms with the musical text than any of his colleagues, while staying altogether closer to the spirit of the piece.

Soprano Orla Boylan sang with focused vocal restraint, but mostly failed to carry the words. Mezzo soprano Ethna Robinson was efficient in a strangely austere way (there was never a sense of emotional ignition, even when the charge should have been high). And bass George Mosley was at his best when the pace was not too strenuous.

Roger Vignoles generally moved things along with a light touch and at brisk speeds, though the vibrato he allowed in the lower strings seemed at times to hark back to Messiahs when an overt religiosity was the order of the day.