Review: Handel’s Messiah performed by the Langcliffe Singers and guests, Settle Parish Church

SATURDAY night in Settle. What shall we do? For less than a fiver we could download a world-class recording of Handel’s Messiah, pause it when Strictly comes on, pause it again for the news, and finally fast-forward to the grand finale before retiring. Or we could pay twice that to miss Strictly (the final!) and turn up at Settle Church to sit through a two-hour-long amateur performance.

It’s cold and foggy to boot, we’d have to be mad. Apparently there’s no shortage of lunatics in Settle though, because around 100 of us did just that. And to cap everything, we were each handed the score of the Hallelujah Chorus as we came in. Some mistake surely? Then the concert began, and after an organ overture, tenor Philip O’Connor began to sing.

The word ‘quiet’ is perhaps an odd one to use of a singer with a rich, resonant voice, but it’s appropriate somehow. A few minutes earlier everyone had been chattering in excited anticipation, and now here he was, setting the scene with quiet authority. ‘Comfort ye my people.’ This is going to be good. Perhaps we’re not so mad after all.

I have to admit a personal bias. I sang with the Giggleswick Choral Society ten years ago when Darren Everhart – now musical director of Langcliffe Singers – was running it. Both choirs consist of amateurs whose only qualification is an ability to turn up. Which we did, because rehearsals, with Maestro Everhart, were huge fun, and we hated to miss them.

Not running-about-being-silly fun, but this-is-a-superb-piece-of-music-and-we’re-going-to-make-a-fist-of-it fun. Not frivolous fun, serious fun. (‘Basses, that was a very fine B flat, very fine. One tiny point – it should have been a C.’)

The man has other talents, not least the ability to attract top-quality professional soloists. What’s in it for them? It can’t be the money, they’ll only be getting a fraction of their usual fee. But M. Everhart has a well-earned reputation for bringing good music to the people, and under his direction, it’s going to be magical, a very special event, one which no-one wants to miss. So on Saturday, on loan from the Royal Opera House perhaps, or La Scala Milan, we had soprano Sarah Fox, mezzo-soprano Elinor Carter, tenor Philip O’Connor, bass-baritone Robert Gildon, and organist Shaun Turnbull.

Now, putting professional singers with an amateur choir, that can’t work surely? But you have to remember that every large choir is an amateur one. You can’t pay each member of the Huddersfield Choral Society, unless perhaps you’re Elon Musk, and even he would blanche at the prospect. Amateur doesn’t mean bad, it means you’re doing it because you love it. Yes the Langcliffe Singers are amateurs, and yes they are very good.

When we came to the Hallelujah Chorus, M. Everhart brought us to our feet and we joined in. When you think about it, this is very generous. You work for months to create the best possible performance, and when you come to the grand finale, you throw any chance of perfection away, and hand things over to the mob. Volume goes up, yes, but accuracy goes down. (I’m sure someone in my pew missed a cue. Oh, was that me? Sorry.) Ultimately though, perfection isn’t the point. The joy of making music, that’s the point.

You’ll have gathered by now that I was impressed, so in keeping with my duties as critic, I should mention one or two tiny lapses. One of the basses never raised his eyes from his score, as if engrossed in a good book. Admittedly my gaze shifted to other things occasionally, but it always shifted back.

I was intrigued. At some point, surely, he must get distracted by the man waving his arms about from the podium below? Alas, it was not to be. What else? Shaun Turnbull, though clearly an excellent organist, struggled valiantly with some of the technical problems of Settle Church’s organ. It is basically a fine instrument - Shaun achieved some beautiful colours from the limited sounds on offer – but it would be good to be able to offer visiting professionals a fully working organ. And that’s all I can think of. Everything else was stupendous; the choir, in all four parts, particularly the sopranos; Sarah Fox, Elinor Carter and Philip O’Connor, all in fine fettle. Best of all, Robert Gildon, a great bear of a man.

In fact he’s of average build, but when he starts to sing, he doubles in size, I swear it. His voice came from somewhere well south of his toes, vibrated through his body and poured from a mouth tilted skywards, loosening fragments of plaster from the church roof, tiny flakes of which drifted down to settle unseen on the shoulders of the audience. A white Christmas.


Paul Clark