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Review: Messiah

Review: Messiah
Handel Messiah
NZSO
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

The Messiah is one of those pieces of music familiar even to people who don't like, or think they don't like, classical music; and the version that most people have in mind is the big, boom-crash, full-forces one, with a cast of hundreds shouting, 'Hallelujah'.

Saturday night's performance, in contrast, took the piece back to something like the way it would have originally been performed when premiered in 1742, with an orchestra of 20-30 players and only a few more singers. This wasn't a strict, back-to-basics re-creation, but a performance that was "historically informed" (a nice phrase, indicating intention but leaving plenty of wriggle room....)

My preferred recording of this piece is a 1940s version with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting in the grand manner, so it took my ears a split second to adjust – but adjust they did, and with pleasure. The reduced forces produced, right from the overture, a gentler, more subtle, but also crisper, sound. Suddenly you could hear the stately dance steps in the opening staccato rhythms, a reminder that this was, after all, music composed while people like Bach were still living (just).

It was also a delight to be able to fully hear the individual lines, including the brief moments of woodwind prominence, the lovely harpsichord and chamber organ accompaniment, and the warm, thoughtful orchestration for the cellos and double basses.

Every approach potentially loses things even as it gains others, and there were definitely moments – for instance, in the tenor's opening aria, 'Ev'ry valley shall be exalted' – when I would have liked the brisk tempo to soften, even just temporarily, for a longer pause, a lusher sound, a greater moment of gathering tension and release.

I also wasn't completely convinced by the soloists, initially. Countertenor Christopher Field felt underpowered, especially for the dramatic 'For He is like a refiner's fire', and bass James Clayton a bit stentorian in his first recitative. (And, though this is a minor point, I regretted tenor Henry Choo's decision not to sound the final accents in "accomplished" and "pardoned", which I think is needed to match the rhythm of the accompaniment.)

But things quickly picked up: Clayton's 'The people that walk in darkness' was really stunning, a wonderful study in light and shade, and soprano Madeleine Pierard sang beautifully throughout, with a welcome extra touch of emotion and acting out of her part. And even if I wasn't swept away by the male soloists, they all had great moments; in particular, Field's 'He was despised' was delicately and beautifully conveyed, playing to the strengths of the upper reaches of his voice.

The star of the show, as the programme notes rightly pointed out, is of course the chorus, and again the reduced forces allowed the Tudor Consort's singing to be that much clearer and more precise. Their blending, balance and tone were all excellent (especially in the tricky 'Since by man came death'), and it was a joy to be able to hear every nuance and variation.

This was especially true in the more complex, contrapuntal choruses, such as 'And he shall purify', although I would've liked a little more punch on the entries. And there were times, in the grand moments (such as 'Glory to God'), when I missed the feeling of a massed surge of voices, and the effect was polite rather than uplifting or transporting.

The ultimate benefit of conductor Graham Abbott's approach, however, was a strong sense of connection between soloists, chorus and orchestra. Each supported and balanced the other, and some of the strings' accompaniments for the soloists had a real intimacy about them. Which – for a piece that is, ultimately, as much about the human drama as it is about eternal salvation – was entirely appropriate.

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