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Dramatic Messiah

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, 7 December
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

The NZSO’s annual Messiah performance is now a tradition. But a good tradition isn’t simply the repetition of something over and over; all traditions adapt and flex to fit changing conditions.

The NZSO recognises this – and, more prosaically, has to keep people coming back year after year. So every year it has to put on a different Messiah, a task made easier by the fact that, as the programme note points out, it’s a piece especially open to a wide range of interpretations.

This year’s conductor, Graham Abbott, who headed up the equivalent performances in 2012 and 2016, made clear his intention to give us a dramatic Messiah. It is, after all, a striking story (even if not directly acted as such onstage), a fact sometimes lost in performances that feel like a series of set pieces.

In this intention Abbott, the soloists, the choir and the orchestra itself were immensely successful. There was a clear sense of narrative, especially from the soloists: their singing was consistently expressive, varied, and carefully suited to the lyrics. From the orchestra came a broad range of moods, as the brisk, bright and sun-filled overture passed through various shadings into the slow, murmuring, foreboding passages like ‘The people that walked in darkness’.

Among the soloists, tenor Andrew Goodwin stood out thanks to the caressing beauty of his voice and his generous, expansive interpretations of arias such as ‘Comfort ye’. Both he and baritone Hadleigh Adams struggled occasionally with the scale passages, but were otherwise a delight. The latter’s voice in arias such as ‘For behold, darkness’ was rich and velvety, beautifully matched to the similar sonorities in the strings.

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One of the unquestionable highlights was his rendition of ‘The trumpet shall sound’, in which he gave himself full room for a stirring, impassioned interpretation that combined an almost gospel -like flair with classical rigour. (And we shall be changed, indeed.) Soprano Celeste Lazarenko, meanwhile, was very good in arias like ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’, if not completely convincing throughout. The alto, Anna Pierard, sometimes struggled to be heard above the orchestra, but sang with great beauty and delicacy.

In terms of the performance as a whole, I was initially sceptical about the imbalance between the small-scale orchestra and the very large number of singers, but on the whole their relative levels were well matched. And for such a large choir, Orpheus were formidably well-drilled. The big set pieces, such as ‘For unto us a child is born’, were crisp and convincing, while ‘All we, like sheep’ crackled with energy, and the famous ‘Hallelujah’ chorus was exhilarating, especially in the top soprano lines.

It wasn’t a flawless performance, however. It felt, at moments, just fractionally under-rehearsed or not quite on point. At the start of ‘And he shall purify’, for instance, the orchestra appeared to be out of sync with the chorus; Pierard was noticeably slow finding her place for ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive’; and the soloists weren’t always stylistically consistent. But it was still a superb evening of music, a reminder of the Messiah’s enduring power, and a sign that the NZSO knows how to keep a tradition alive.

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