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Blockbusters both Beethoven and Handel

Blockbusters both Beethoven and Handel

Beethoven 9 and Messiah
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke
Friday, 23 November and Saturday, 8 December

As the year stumbles to a close, it's a good time to look back on the last couple of New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Concerts, both of them featuring some of the most celebrated parts of the repertoire.

In a concert late last month, the orchestra paired Beethoven's famous Symphony 9 with the much less known Symphony 1. The former was played with great elegance throughout, but was slightly lacking in a sharp edge, and some of the darker lines for the double basses could have been brought out more strongly. The second movement, though, was a model of clarity, with a pleasant sense of powerful emotions being kept in check by the demands of the form. The third movement, speedy but graceful, had gentle woodwinds coming to the fore, while the fourth was delightfully light on its feet.

The rendition of the ninth Symphony opened with a grand, stately energy, but the different colours were not always articulated clearly, and just occasionally – a rarity for this orchestra – the sections seemed fractionally out of sync. The second movement, however, was a complete delight, harnessing a crisp, scurrying energy and some fine gradations of tone. In the third movement there was a wonderful sense of near-stillness and expectancy, the music flowing out like a long, broad river. And of course the famous rousing finale did not disappoint, with all the soloists in fine voice.

Vocal lines are, of course, at the heart of the other big blockbuster performed recently, Handel's Messiah. British conductor Nicholas McGegan helmed a stripped-back, relatively spare production of this classic. This approach was seen to good effect in the overture, which was sprightly and gigue-like. Tenor James Egglestone displayed a genuinely lovely voice, fine and summery, although I felt some of the high notes sounded a little too covered, and I wasn't sure about the highly decorated ending of 'Ev'ry valley shall be exalted'.

In the chorus, 'And the glory of the Lord', I missed the real thundering crash that you get in, say, a Thomas Beecham recording – but in the following bass aria, there was once again that lovely sense of Baroque swing and uplift in the accompaniment.

I didn't enjoy alto Kristin Darragh's performance, which felt far too operatic, with too much vibrato, for a Messiah rendition that seemed to be aiming for quite a different style. And some of her longer vocal lines were broken up by breathing at inappropriate points – although I did enjoy the richer notes, lower in her voice in 'O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion', as well as her later arias.

Bass Martin Snell was excellent throughout, especially in 'The people that walked in darkness' with its hushed sound and repeated tolling of the word 'death'. Also excellent were the Tudor Consort in the choruses, displaying both strength and beauty of sound, and conjuring up a wide range of colours and tones. 'Behold the Lamb of God', for instance, was a study in good singing, with dynamics, sensitive musicianship and phrasing all of the highest order. Occasionally I would have liked a little more punch, especially at the start of 'Surely he hath borne our griefs', but that's a minor criticism.

As the work progressed, soprano Madeleine Pierard came into her own, reminding us of her immense vocal talent and sensitive musicality. This was well matched by McGegan's conducting and an overall approach that was immensely thorough. Even the recitative received its full measure of poetry and warmth – one sign of a hugely successful production.

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