Handel’s masterwork – 280 years and not out

14 April 2022

Handel’s Messiah was first performed in Easter Week, 1742 and Sandra Bowdler has found a revival of that event that was near perfection.

Messiah, West Australian Symphony Orchestra & St George’s Cathedral Consort ·
Perth Concert Hall, 13 April 2022 ·

The very first performance of Handel’s Messiah took place almost exactly 280 years ago in Dublin in Easter Week, 1742. Handel had written the music, to a text by English landed gentry Charles Jennens, the previous year. The invitation to oversee a festival of music in Dublin provided the perfect opportunity for its premiere.

Over the years Handel revived the piece many times and each time he took the opportunity to add new numbers, enlarge the orchestra, and tailor songs to the current singers. In all, he created at least nine different versions of the work.

The combined forces of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO) and the St George’s Cathedral Consort opted for the 1942 version for this Easter Week performance.

It was a performance as near perfection as might be imagined, and greatly appreciated by the substantial audience, as full it seemed as current COVID restrictions allowed. Everyone was masked – audience, choir, orchestral players, conductors – unless they were singing, or blowing (in the case of the trumpeters).

Conductor Joseph Nolan and the forces of WASO and the St George’s Cathedral Consort. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

Under the direction of Joseph Nolan – also the choirmaster – the reduced forces of the WASO orchestra played on modern instruments, but included such Baroque specialists as Stewart Smith (chamber organ and harpsichord) and Noeleen Wright (cello), the ever-exquisite St George’s Cathedral Consort, and a dream team of soloists: Sara Macliver (soprano), Fiona Campbell (also), Paul McMahon (tenor) and David Greco (bass).

280 years earlier the limited available music resources in Dublin had compelled Handel to make changes to the autograph score. There were issues about the choir members; the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral Jonathan Swift (yes, the author of Gulliver’s Travels), objected to his choristers being used to support “a club of Fidlers in Fishamble Street”, the site of a new music hall. Fortunately he relented in time, so the premiere went ahead with a mixed chorus of Cathedral choir boys and women “of the stage”. On the plus side, one of Handel’s favourite singers, the alto Susanna Cibber, was available so some of the soprano’s parts were shifted her way.

The Dublin orchestra was small and without the usual oboes, bassoons and horns. The result was a very small group of musical forces. Revivals of Messiah haven’t always reflected this, particularly the gigantic performances of the Victorian era; one at the Crystal Palace featured 2,755 singers, 460 instrumentalists and an audience of around 10,000. 

This performance, however, reproduced the charm and transparency of the 1742 production. The use of modern instruments meant one missed the highwire effect of wondering whether, for example, the trumpets would stay in tune in numbers like “Hallelujah” and the final “Worthy is the Lamb/Amen”. In fact trumpeters Brent Grapes and Peter Miller were faultless and thrilling, especially with the timpani (François Combemorel).  And these were just a couple of examples of a procession of showstoppers.

Fiona Campbell supported by the musicians of the WA Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

The overture established the brisk and transparent approach of the musicians, followed by McMahon’s excellent “Comfort ye … Ev’ry valley”, with lovely diction and articulation – as was the case with all the soloists – and a nice final cadenza. 

The first chorus “And the glory of the Lord” also showcased the qualities of the Consort, particularly a beautifully synchronised and accurate soprano line (helped greatly by the presence of emerging solo artist Bonnie de la Hunty).

“O thou that tellest” introduced Campbell’s pure, creamy alto with well-wrought coloratura passages, and high notes beautifully segueing into the chorus continuation. A gentle, lilting “Pifa” led into Macliver’s glorious “There were shepherds abiding …And suddenly”, followed by the trumpets’ first entry in “Glory to God”, and then capped with Macliver’s sparkling 12/8 “Rejoice”, with a lovely extended note on the word “Peace”.

Campbell excelled again in a committed “He was despised”, bringing empathy and drama.  “All we like sheep” was sung briskly, with a very delicate end. The turning point of the drama, the section “Thy rebuke” through to “But thou didst not leave” was all sung by the soprano and the interval was taken after the triumphant chorus, “Lift up your heads”. The interval was observed here, rather than after “Rejoice”, which was not ideal in terms of the architecture of the work.

For the “Hallelujah” chorus, one waited with bated breath … will they? 

Yes, they did, everyone shuffling to their feet for a brilliant rendition which engendered spontaneous exuberant applause. Macliver again brought her rock solid technique and vocal purity to a heartfelt “I know that my redeemer liveth”. Greco and Grapes provided a resonant and dramatic “The trumpet shall sound” followed by a lively “O death, where is they sting” by tenor and alto, and Campbell then provided a warm and sensitive reading of “If God be for us” with a lovely cello solo from Wright. 

The final choruses were delivered with excellent dynamic variation and, after a small silence, the audience practically leapt to its feet and erupted with applause, foot stamping, shouting and whistling. Nolan looked totally exhausted, but it was certainly a job well done.

Disclaimer: The 1742 version of ‘Messiah’ used in this performance was arranged by Sandra Bowdler for a Festival Baroque performance in 2011, as was the program note used on this occasion.

This performance was recorded and will be broadcast on ABC Classic FM at a future date.

Pictured top: soprano Sara Macliver is part of the exceptional line-up in this near-perfect performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

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Author —
Sandra Bowdler

Sandra Bowdler is an archaeologist who has been writing about music for some twenty years, most recently for Opera magazine (UK), Bachtrack and Handel News. She is also the author of “Handel’s Operas in Australia, a performance history” Händel Jarhbuch (2017). Her favourite piece of playground equipment would be the picnic bench with smoked salmon sandwiches and champagne.

Past Articles

  • Drums of revolution echo through years

    Russian-born conductor Vasily Petrenko leads WASO to deliver the drama and violence of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.11, writes Sandra Bowdler.

  • Musical fireworks

    Remarkable performances by soprano Sara Macliver and conductor Dane Lam light up this concert by the WA Symphony Orchestra, reports Sandra Bowdler.

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