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A choral Christmas treat

Review: Perth Symphonic Chorus and Perth Baroque Orchestra, Handel’s Messiah ·
Perth Concert Hall, 22 December ·
Review by Leon Levy ·

For some 30 years Handel’s fame had been based on a large body of operatic works. Thus it is arguable that had not changing fashions pushed the composer in the direction of oratorio – for which his dramatic instincts were well-suited – the world might conceivably have been deprived of the masterpiece that is Messiah. For the work responded to the particular texts, drawn by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible and Book of Common Prayer, in a way that yet another operatic libretto was, surely, unlikely to.

Messiah
Advertisement for the first London performance.

The premiere, a charity occasion held in Dublin in April 1772, was well-received. In order to accommodate the expected crowd, ladies were requested not to wear hoops in their dresses and gentlemen to dispense with their swords (a tradition that was respected by the Perth audience on this occasion, along with the custom of standing during the Hallelujah chorus). The reception given to the first London performance, almost a year later, was, however, less enthusiastic: this was perhaps shaped by the belief that the work’s sacred subject matter was not suited to theatrical performance by secular singers. In any event, the work was described merely as “A New Sacred Oratorio”, shorn of its name “Messiah”. But there was no resisting its power, and from 1750 onwards there were regular London performances, followed elsewhere with increasing frequency.

Fresh from an exceedingly fine Remembrance Day concert, Dr Margaret Pride’s Perth Symphonic Chorus was, on this occasion, accompanied by the Perth Baroque Orchestra under Paul Wright. Taking one’s seat, one noted a band numbering just 25, well below the strength of most modern authentic performances. But towering above them was a group of some 125 choristers, many times the number of singers that the composer would have employed! However, any concerns regarding imbalances between instruments and singers were quickly banished, for Pride deployed her choral forces in a way that conveyed a sense of quiet strength, and throughout the performance the singing felt proportionate to the orchestral sound.

And what a fine sound the hard-working Perth Baroque Orchestra produced, setting the tone in the opening instrumental Symphony for all that was to follow. Similarly, tenor Robert Macfarlane established the standard for his fellow soloists, bringing colour and feeling to his “Comfort Ye” recitative, and even runs and convincing decorations in the following “Every Valley”.

“But who may abide” proved to be a less than successful introduction to bass James Clayton and counter tenor Tobias Cole, whose contrasting voice-types did not sit well together in the shared aria. Each, however, went on to contribute enormously to the evening: the counter tenor rapidly establishing his credentials in his next recitative and aria, and demonstrating well-matched duet-singing with the soprano in “He shall feed his flock”, and again in Part II with a heartfelt “He was despised”.

Clayton, too, went on to great things, revealing wonderful vocal splendour throughout, and using ornamentation, firm line and clear diction to bring life to all of his singing. And in “The trumpet shall sound” his vibrant projection was fully matched by Jenny Coleman’s gleaming and excitingly decorated trumpet accompaniment.

Soprano Janet Todd may have been a late replacement for two successive ailing soloists, but she rose splendidly to the occasion. With a fresh and pure tone, words feelingly articulated and a lovely stage presence, she met the most taxing of challenges.

The choir reflected all of the trademarks of Pride’s training. “Since by man” was just one of many examples of their pedigree, but throughout the evening their contribution brought unalloyed pleasure.

If it may be considered an honour to have brought a year of fine music-making in Perth Concert Hall to a conclusion, this truly fine Messiah was deserving of that distinction.

Pictured top is Perth Symphonic Chorus, conducted by Dr Margaret Pride, performing Handel’s Messiah at Perth Concert Hall (NB this photograph is not of the 2018 performance).

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