Orpheus Choir and Wellington Orchestra deliver “good tidings” from Handel

HANDEL – Messiah

Ana James (soprano) / Helen Medlyn (mezzo-soprano)

Keith Lewis (tenor) / Martin Snell (bass)

Orpheus Choir of Wellington

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Michael Fulcher, conductor

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday, December 4th, 2010

There’s no doubt about it – nothing brings in people quite like the prospect of hearing a “Messiah”. And, as when one goes to something like a rugby test, there’s a parallel sense of occasion, of impending enjoyment, of expectation that the the experience will truly resonate with an amalgam of the familiar and the freshly-minted. So, there, queued up in lines around at least two sides of the Town Hall were, I suspect, many “Messiah veterans” as well as people who would have heard, one way or another, about the “good tidings”, and come to see and hear for themselves just what it was all about.

The last Messiah I heard was given by a different choir, the Tudor Consort, in this same hall two years ago, the differences in style and interpretation between that and the present approach a cause for endless fascination. I remember then actually sitting in the auditorium behind the conductor of the present “Messiah”, Michael Fulcher, for the Tudor Consort’s performance and wondering what his reactions were to Michael Stewart’s extremely  lean, clean-cut and vigorous interpretation of the whole. Of course I was now ideally placed to glean some of those reactions by dint of the present concert, albeit two years afterwards.

So – again a full hall, the same orchestra, a bigger choir than there was in 2008 (a most resplendent-sounding Orpheus Choir), and a very different line-up of soloists. Madeleine Pierard’s vocal beauty and polish easily stole the show on the earlier occasion, but this time the quartet was far more evenly-matched. Ana James was here a silvery-toned soprano, Helen Medlyn the characterful, dramatic mezzo-soprano, Keith Lewis the lyrical, occasionally heroic tenor, and Martin Snell a commanding, richly-toned bass. Conductor Michael Fulcher took a more traditional approach to the work than we heard in Michael Stewart’s hands, with steadier speeds throughout and more “orchestrated” dynamic contrasts in places, which I thought brought out the music’s grandeur and depth of feeling more consistently.

Of course the “swings and roundabouts” syndrome meant that this time round there wasn’t in places the same knife-edged excitement around and about the textures, and one or two of the choruses seemed to play themselves rather than be infused with fresh energies. But these differences were, of course, for the listener part of the meat and drink of the experience, of hearing a familiar work freshly realized, and revelling in the stimulation and resulting discussion that such a new realization gives. As with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, there doesn’t seem to me to be anything one can “do” to Messiah to blunt its effect – it’s one of those almost archetypal masterpieces of art which form an essential part of one’s understanding of human civilization in general.

To go through the performance and tease out every interpretative nuance would need an excess of world and time – any number of felicities could be cited as giving a sense of the whole, and the occasional frailty a timely reminder of the humanity of the enterprise. The soloists always generate great interest, and each of these performed with particular distinction. First up was, of course, tenor Keith Lewis, with his wonderfully poetic, liberally nuanced, yet still commanding, “Comfort Ye” (sounding not unlike a stylistically aware namesake from an earlier Handelian era, Richard Lewis), the voice opening up splendidly at “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness”, freely declaiming (some would call it “mannered”) in places, but for me managing to suggest a compelling spontaneity of utterance. Not a heroic performance, then, but a fascinatingly stylish one – later, his voice demonstrated some frailty at the very top, with the cruel upward leaps of “Thou shalt break them” giving him some difficulty, though he had introduced the aria with a beautifully-realised recitative “He that dwelleth in heaven”.

What Helen Medlyn lacked in sheer vocal girth she made up for in both characterful expression and grave beauty of utterance – the capacity to tell a story was always evident in her singing. Her big number, “He was despised” was heartfelt and emotional at the beginning, then vehement and theatrical in the middle section, projecting the text with her articulation rather than any great power. I liked her allowing some melodic decoration at the opening’s reprise, while keeping intact the aria’s essential simplicity. The same went for her  “But who may abide”, her voice assuming an almost Greek-chorus-like solemnity at the beginning, and then using sharply-focused diction to depict the “refiner’s fire”. Though occasionally having to force her tone, as in parts of “Thou art gone up on high”, her duet with Keith Lewis “O death, where is thy sting?” was put across with engaging energy and spirit.

Vocal girth was what Martin Snell’s bass voice had in abundance, but also great agility and splendid focus throughout. His dramatic experience was evident in his word-pointing at the declamatory “Thus saith the Lord”, though it must be said his runs on the word “shake” were more considered than really seismic. Despite the disappointingly bland orchestral introduction at “For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth”, Snell evoked the gloom magnificently, arching his voice vigorously at “glory”, and summoning the light with great surety. I thought “The people that walked” a shade quick, but singer and orchestra really made something of the words “have seen a great light”. For energy and vigour at a crackling pace, singer and orchestra again sparked from off each other at “Why do the Nations?”, while “The trumpet shall sound” has surely never sounded more assertive and assured in the hall as here on this occasion, with stellar playing from trumpeter Barrett Hocking throughout, fully matching the singing’s grandeur of utterance.

Youngest of the soloists, soprano Ana James nevertheless brought plenty of concert and operatic experience to her task, displaying a bright, silvery soprano voice which charmed at her first entrance “There were shepherds…”, quickened the listener’s interest at “And the angel said unto them….”, and brightly and eagerly scintillated at the words “And suddenly there was with the angel…” It was a sound that contrasted well with Helen Medlyn’s warmly involving tones in “Come unto him all ye that labour”, but really blossomed with “How beautiful are the feet”, the orchestra matching their soloist with beguiling instrumental beauty. Inevitably, everybody waits for two moments in Messiah, one of which is “I know that my Redeemer liveth” – here, Ana James spun her line out beautifully, surviving a touch of awkwardness at a breath-taking moment (literally) at “upon the earth” the first time round, and enchanting us with tasteful embellishments at the main theme’s reprise, with a beautiful stepwise ascent on the word “Redeemer”.

Michael Fulcher’s work with the Orpheus Choir made for many richly sonorous moments and some exciting contrasts in places – the “other” moment in the work, of course is “Halleluiah!”, which here was wonderful in every way. I confess that every time I’m taken by surprise when people leap to their feet for this chorus, and on each occasion it’s an exhilarating experience – the sudden irruptions of timpani and brass (trumpeters Barrett Hocking and Tom Moyer, and timpanist Laurence Reese on tiptop form) never fail to raise goosebumps! But conductor and choir made the most of the other big festive numbers as well, glorious soprano sounds in both “And the glory of the Lord” and “And He shall purify”, and all sections relishing their upward-thrusting lines and their concerted acclamations in “For unto us a Child is born”. I didn’t feel quite enough was made of the contrasting sections of “Since by man came death”, beautifully prepared for by the choir’s hushed opening tones, but needing a bit more attack at “by man came also the resurrection…”, though “even so in Christ” did seem sharper and better-focused. And while “The Lord gave the word” seemed to me to have a dogged quality throughout, elsewhere there was a real sense of the music invariably taking the performers and listeners somewhere. I liked, for instance, the building-up of the “Amen” chorus from tones of quiet confidence at the beginning to sounds of the utmost splendor at the end – beautifully and grandly achieved.

Working hand-in-glove with the singers throughout was the Wellington Orchestra, sounding ever stylish and rising magnificently to the occasion of those resplendent moments. There was the occasional moment where I felt the players weren’t being asked for anything special, such as at the beginning of “For, behold…”, which was more dull than gloom-laden; and some people would have thought that the string scintillations at “And suddenly” were workmanlike rather than celestial. But from the opening of Part Two, with the stern focus of the accompaniment at “Behold the Lamb of God” the concentration of the playing was palpable and arresting; and the strings’ accompaniment to “He was despised” beautifully echoed the singer’s pathos and dignity. And for energy and excitement the sizzling orchestral momentum at “Why do the nations?” really delivered the goods, underlining the contrasting grandeur of the playing throughout “Hallelujah” and during those final choruses.

The standing ovation at the end of what was a fairly long haul, was a richly deserved one – a heartfelt response to richly-committed music-making from all concerned.

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