The Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir was literally up for its 235th performance of Messiah according to its justifiably proud director Andrew Wailes. Of course, more is needed to make a success of this massive work than mere longevity; in particular, a supportive orchestra and soloists worthy of the work. Furthermore Messiah is perhaps the most popular classical concert you can find at Christmas, and just across the city from the town hall the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and choir were presenting their version of Handel’s great work.
But the RMP had no need of comparisons, and in fact (in this reviewer’s mind) had something going for it which Hamer Hall did not, despite the undeniably superior acoustics in the newer venue. This was the was the pipe organ which like others of its type towered over the performance space and promised a powerful sound for the big numbers, notably the Hallelujah Chorus.
However, the orchestra with or without the organ impressed from the outset with its balance and in particular, in the first Sinfonia, its precision in the dotted notes. It was a youthful collection of instrumentalists, which made it all the more impressive that the standard was consistently high through the hours of playing and range of music.
Tenor Andrew Goodwin had the (perhaps unenviable) task of opening vocal proceedings with the high notes that begin Comfort ye and goes on to the fast moving Every valley shall be exalted. Goodwin’s control of the first long note, and the full tone of his pleasant tenor voice thereafter, allowed the audience to relax as he then paid attention to ornamentation and dynamics and simply pleasing the audience with the popular Every valley.
The choir has its first chance for a good sing with the chorus, And the glory of the Lord. Wailes needed all his strength to keep control of the singers who seemed keen for a gallop. Rhythm and precision prevailed and the chorus ended with a flourish. The bass soloist was the excellent choice of Teddy Tahu Rhodes. His stance on stage is one of power and confidence so it was hardly a surprise that his Thus saith the Lord and the audience felt the resonance of phrases like “He will shake”.
The women’s voices in Messiah are needed for contrast and consolation. So mezzo Bronwyn Douglas, in festive green, after some tentativeness in her recitative, did well with her two arias, infusing particular confidence into O thou that tellest. Wailes has the ability to persuade all singers of the overall feeling of a section of the work, so that the choruses also mirrored the declamatory arias, with such important choruses as For unto us a child is born and Glory to God. The final chorus in part one, His yoke is easy, is in fact quite difficult. But the challenge was well met, with Wailes allowing the exuberance of the singing to match with this great polyphonic statement.
Part the second is perhaps the most dramatic section of Messiah. The choir returned still in good voice after the interval. Douglas excelled in the contralto is main piece He was despised. Even in the low notes her voice had a sonorousness and warmth, with the word “grief” infused with feeling. She fulfilled the promise of her earlier duet with Sara Macliver, He shall feed his flock. (The soprano role gathers importance as the oratorio proceeds, but already the audience were very satisfied with Macliver’s strong, pure baroque soprano voice. In fact, there was little to criticise and much to love in the performance even before the great test at the end of this part, the magnificent chorus, Hallelujah. As the organist took his place and the audience rose to its feet there was the excitement that a truly good performance of Messiah should generate. No one could have been disappointed!
A listener new to the work could have thought such a great sound signalled the end, but had they not returned after the next interval they would have missed some of the best moments in this performance. Macliver’s I know that my Redeemer liveth was very suited to her voice and she both paced it well and used ornamentation beautifully. With very fine support from young trumpeter, Josh Rogan, Tahu Rhodes undoubtedly was conscious that one of his best pieces was The trumpet shall sound, contrasting with the hushed recitative, Behold, I tell you a mystery. The voices of alto and tenor melded well in the duet, Oh death, where is thy sting?
However, the final stages of the great story that is Messiah belonged unquestionably to the choir and the conductor, with the choruses, Thanks be to God, Worthy is the lamb and the final Amen. The orchestra gave its best to match the powerhouse of sound, with organist David MacFarlane heard for the second time on the night, swelling the sound as conductor Wailes drew a magnificent range of musicians together for the last Amen.
Melbourne needs to be proud of such a choir as the RMP and to ensure that it is with us for another two or three hundred or more years!