One of the most performed and loved works of all time, Handel’s Messiah is an oratorio based on a libretto by Charles Jennens. It received its initial performance in Dublin in 1742.
This Saturday, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus gave their traditional Messiah performance under the baton of British Maestro Bramwell Tovey with guest chorus-master Anthony Pasquill at Hamer Hall. The soloists were New Zealand soprano Anna Leese, Melbourne mezzo Sally-Anne Russell, Vienna-based Australian tenor Steve Davislim and Australian-based New Zealand tenor Teddy Tahu Rhodes. The soloists were seated on the aisles of the hall, soprano and mezzo to the left, tenor and baritone to the right and walked on an off to perform their items.
By nature of the work, the orchestra comprised a chamber-sized string section with basso continuo of cello, double bass, harpsichord, organ and bassoon, all in modern concert pitch.
Part I, the coming of the Messiah, is full of classical favourites including the French-styled Sinfony-Overture, the tender Comfort Ye solo for the tenor, But who may abide for the alto, The people that walked in darkness for the bass and the Rejoice greatly for the soprano. After the majestic opening chorus Behold the Lamb of God, Part II introduces the alto aria He was despised, the longest aria in the Messiah, depicting Christ’s rejection. Behold, and see and But thou didst not leave for the tenor paired with the soprano’s How beautiful are the feet and the bass’s Why do the nations lead to the glorious Hallelujah Chorus to conclude Part II of the work.
Interestingly, it was decided to omit the chorus Let all the Angels as well as the alto aria Thou art gone up on high in tonight’s performance. As some more cuts were implemented in Part III, the impression evoked that this was a reaction to complete, often overly long performances of the work.
Part III, the shortest of all three parts, is characterized by the well-known Redeemer aria for the soprano as well as The trumpet shall sound for bass and trumpet and concludes with the mighty Worthy is the Lamb followed by the Amen.
Bramwell Tovey conducted tastefully and knew when to lead the ensemble and when to listen and let go. The tempos were adequate and the balance between soloists, chorus and orchestra were well achieved. (I met the conductor in the pub afterwards and he impressed with an enormous portfolio of facial expressions and English wit. A pity that—besides some glimpses from the side—I could only see his back during the performance, but I am certain that these skills were also used to interpret the music in the performance. It sounded like it).
Anna Leese’s shiny soprano was a good fit for Messiah. She gave an admirable performance of the Rejoice, greatly showcasing her warm-timbred voice. It is an aria feared by many and the reason why many sopranos would turn down a Messiah gig. And all of this because Handel wrote two eternal coloratura lines that make this aria fiendishly difficult. Leese took breaths in both of them. Do I think it made the music or her performance worse? No. Did I think it mattered at all? No. Why do I mention this then? I think this can help to encourage more sopranos to have a go at this wonderful piece of music and share it with their audiences.
Mezzo soprano Sally-Anne Russell, or Sally Russell as she is known on Facebook, not only impressed with her purple dress and shiny earrings but also with her clean voice to produce an effortless speech-like sound paired with the right drama when needed. Her Despised in Part II—including the ornaments in the repeat section—was truly wonderful and righteously earned her the title of “Messiah Queen of Australia.” (Note: Graham Abbott is the Messiah King of Australia!)
The stylish performance of Steve Davislim’s Comfort Ye was followed by a theatrical performance of Every Valley. His items in the other parts were equally convincing and I really enjoyed the perfectly suited unity of timbre and character in his interpretation of Thou shall break them. Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ performance throughout the work shines with enough grunt to be heard within a setting of modern instruments as well as uninterrupted vocal line paired with a profound bass-baritone timbre. His duet with MSO principal trumpet Geoff Payne in The trumpet shall sound was one of the highlights of the evening.
The soloists were supported by a dedicated and sparkly performance by the MSO Chorus. Following maestro Tovey’s guidance, guest concertmaster Adam Chalabi communicated well with the soloists and other members of the orchestra to guarantee adequate blend between ensemble and individual voice type. The orchestra’s small ensemble/ripieno accompaniment in the Despised was truly magical.
Congratulations on a very enjoyable performance.
Dr Mario Dobernig, himself a conductor, reviewed the MSO performance for Classic Melbourne on opening night, December 5, 2015.
The picture taken on that occasion is by photographer Daniel Aulsebrook.