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Handel – MESSIAH – The Tudor Consort

By , 04/12/2008

Handel – MESSIAH – The Tudor Consort
Madeleine Pierard (soprano)
Nicola Hooper (alto)
Edmund Hintz (tenor)
Hadleigh Adams (bass)
Tudor Consort
Vector Wellington Orchestra
Conductor: Michael Stewart
Wellington Town Hall
Thursday 4th December 2008

This was a “Messiah” performance that obviously caught the public’s imagination before a note had even been sounded in public, judging by the palpable buzz of excitement in and around the Town Hall beforehand, with queues of people waiting to be admitted a few minutes before starting-time. The Tudor Consort has always publicised its concerts cannily, and perhaps the presence of Madeleine Pierard as a rising young soprano star was also a drawcard – whatever the case, the choir, as well as the Wellington Orchestra people, must have been gratified by the near-full Hall.

Reading conductor Michael Stewart’s note in the programme beforehand, regarding the work’s history and different performance practices over the years, alerted one to the idea that this was going to be a performance of Messiah with its own distinction. In practice, this was very much the case – Stewart had obviously thought long and hard about the work and recent scholarship into performance style, so that this would definitely be something of a fresh look at a much-presented classic, far removed from a mere reproduction of the last hundred or so Town Hall performances over the years.

Obviously with the superb voices of the Tudor Consort at hand, the conductor had the singers able to fill out his conception of the music with real sounds, along with an orchestra at his disposal that has in the past proved a flexible, willing and highly skilled band capable of rising to the most demanding of challenges. The result was an energetic and totally committed performance from all concerned, that earned for the performers a sizeable ovation at the end from an extremely satisfied audience. Whatever criticism one might be inclined to make regarding this and that detail, the overall conception of the work had a conviction and overall sweep which couldn’t help but impress.

The over-riding impression one carried away from the evening’s performance was the obvious extent to which everybody – conductor, soloists, choir and orchestral players – gave of themselves to the music. Thus the story of the oratorio was put across with a considerable amount of energy and skill, atmosphere and colour, an upshot of the very physical way that all of the musicians seemed to engage with the business in hand. All of the four soloists had particular qualities to offer, even if only one of them, soprano Madeleine Pierard, possessed the technical and interpretative means to bring off triumphantly almost everything she wanted to do within her part. Each of the others began strongly, and had their notable moments – Edmund Hintz truly consoled our sensibilities with a lovely “Comfort Ye!” right at the beginning, Nicola Hooper similarly charmed with a nicely-turned “He shall feed his flock”, and bass Hadleigh Adams pinned our ears back with his blood-and-thunder “Thus Saith The Lord”, as well as negotiating “The People Who Walk in Darkness” with a growing sense of passing from a state of gloom and despair into one of hope and gladness.

Despite the difficulties encountered by tenor, alto and bass at various other moments, each had the ability to sustain the mood of the music and the sense of what was wanted, so that the musical argument was sufficiently maintained. By contrast, Madeleine Pierard’s singing was a joy throughout, an artist whose work came across with the confidence, élan and sparkling projection that informed whatever she sang – a truly class act. It was possible to feel just a touch of astringent tone in one or two places, particularly noticeable when she followed Nicola Hooper’s opening “He Shall Feed His Flock” – but by the time she had reached “I know that My Redeemer Liveth” her voice had all the focus, warmth and colour to do the music full justice.

Director of the Tudor Consort Michael Stewart controlled his forces expertly throughout, and secured an extremely vital and energetic performance. He got absolutely splendid playing from the Vector Wellington Orchestra, who weren’t spared by an insistence on fleet-fingered tempi and incisive rhythms whenever the score called for them. Yet the playing had an attractive gravitas in places as well – a fine performance, with lovely brass work in items such as “The Trumpet shall sound” and of course “Halleluiah”.

Which brings me to the Tudor Consort Voices themselves, who covered themselves in vocal glory, despite in places being asked by their director to negotiate the music at what I occasionally felt were speeds that reduced the music’s coherence. I felt that Stewart’s desire to “blow away the cobwebs” resulted in the quicker music being given an edge that was too insistent, to the point that some of the structure’s paintwork was blistered as well as the surfaces freshly cleaned. It was as though he was relying too much on speed rather than rhythmic pointing to generate momentum and excitement, at which times I felt cheated at not being able to experience the delight of listening to those strands interlocking together to produce an amazing and articulate musical structure.

For me the approach emphasised the energy and vigour of Handel’s writing at the expense of some of its grandeur – there were places where I thought the music under- characterised, as in “For Unto Us A Child Is Born”, where the cries of “Wonderful’ and “Counsellor” hardly “told” so as to provide a contrast with the delicious contrapuntal matrix of the opening.  The wonder is that the choir enunciated their lines as clearly as they did, but despite their skill I felt that some of the music was passing me as if in a blur. “And He Shall Purify” reminded me of high-speed trains crossing a network of lines in a complex operation that gave me more anxiety than pleasure – in some of the choruses (such as “He Trusted in God” and “Let Us Break Their Bonds”) a valid emotional response, but surely not as an all-purpose treatment of quick movements and numbers.

The famous “Halleluiah!” made its mark, though, partly because of the focused singing and playing, and partly because almost everybody in the hall stood up – “that hoary old tradition!” was one friend of mine’s reaction – but I loved jumping to my feet with everybody, because doing so heightened for me the whole evening’s sense of occasion, of ritual, even of participation in the performance instead of listening passively. Of course, long before the performance had reached this point, Michael Stewart, with his soloists, the Tudor Consort and the Wellington Orchestra had already swept all of us up in the ferment of music- making; so this was a kind of “word made flesh” moment of audience involvement, which was almost unanimously relished. In its way it was a spontaneous tribute to the performance as a whole, with Stewart’s “fresh perspective on a favourite work” receiving its proper, well-deserved due. (PM)

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