The Bach Choir – Where would we be without Messiah?

HANDEL – Messiah

Amelia Ryman (soprano) / Megan Hurnard (contralto) / Thomas Atkins (tenor)

David Morriss (bass)

The Chiesa Ensemble (Leader: Rebecca Struthers)

Douglas Mews – Continuo

The Bach Choir of Wellington

Stephen Rowley (conductor)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Wellington

Sunday 27th November 2011

Though associated by dint of its “Birth of Christ” references with Christmastime, Messiah has as many affinities with the other “big” Christian event of the Liturgical year, which is, of course, Easter. Conductor Stephen Rowley seemed to emphasize the latter connection at the very beginning of the work in the Bach Choir of Wellington’s recent performance. In fact, it could have been that “High Priest of the German classics” Otto Klemperer conducting, so solemn, grand and slow were those chords at the opening of the overture, though the succeeding Allegro was sprightly enough, with perhaps just a touch of heaviness here and there. It wasn’t a performance for “authenticists” – too full-toned, with an almost romantic sensibility about the music’s expressive unfolding (but in a more cosmic sense, its unique delivery very much in a spontaneously “baroque” tradition).

Having admired and enjoyed the Chiesa Ensemble’s playing on many past occasions, I was a little surprised at the number of noticeable instrumental spills I noticed along the way (insufficient rehearsal, perhaps?) – ensemble awry at the beginning of  the recitative “For Behold…” and again with the soprano in her recitative “And suddenly…..”  – as well as some ragged playing in “Since Man came by Death”. Against these moments were some magnificently buoyant and pin-precise episodes, great support for the choir in “For Unto Us a Child is Born”, as indeed there was throughout all the choruses, another highlight being “And With His stripes” where both singing and playing was excitingly vigorous and secure.

Certainly those big moments, where one wants the utmost glory and majesty, were brought off thrillingly – I actually couldn’t see whether it was Mark Carter or Tom Moyer playing the solo in “The Trumpet Shall Sound” so beautifully, but both gave their all during the final choruses, amply supported by Larry Reese’s scalp-tingling timpani-playing, and full-toned outpourings from strings, winds and continuo.

The Choir itself, somewhat compromised by the imbalance of women’s against men’s voices (an all-too common phenomenon among choral groups these days), performed honestly and reliably throughout, here and there actually touching realms of true sublimity. There were instances where those middle and lower voices were overpowered by the higher ones – though in live performances it’s amazing what the “eye” can imagine the “ear” is actually hearing, especially if one knows the music well. Thus a chorus like “And He shall purify” featured a more-than-usually gleaming soprano line, though one could sense the effort of projection on the part of the other strands, coming together splendidly at the words “That they may offer unto the Lord”.

I liked conductor Stephen Rowley’s emphasizing of some of the choruses’ expressive gestures – the chorus ‘HIs yoke is easy” was nicely modulated throughout, with the dynamics well-controlled, and the tones of the voices on the last word “light” nicely softened into a diminuendo. And the voices’ emphasizing of the word “Death” in “Since Man came by Death” made for a dramatic, breath-catching moment. The Choir also sustained splendidly the long lines of “Behold the Lamb of God” at the words “taken away”. In short, splendid moments, these and others, transcending the difficulties, also occasionally apparent, of the group’s varying strength in different sections.

Of the soloists tenor Thomas Atkins was the first to impress with a thrilling “Comfort Ye”, the recitative properly declamatory and prophet-like, and the aria “Ev’ry valley” joyously energetic (and supported by some lovely string-playing). Also, he made something distinctive, I thought, of his sequence beginning “All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn”, the singing powerful and sonorous, as it was through “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart” . I must confess to wondering, throughout the first half, whether the microphone in the church’s pulpit (from where each of the soloists sang) had been left switched “on” as the voice-tones seemed to have for a while a somewhat augmented and “directional” resonance – but I never got to the bottom of the mystery, except that throughout the second half the voices seemed to my ears more naturally projected.

Contralto Megan Hurnard gave reliable, centered renditions of her solos, the voice gravely beautiful throughout her centerpiece “He was despised”, even if some of the words sounded a shade inert, needing more emphasis in order to make them live and breathe. I thought, for example, that during “He gave his back” the singer could have risked a little roughness of tone to get something of the sting of words like “smiters”, and even “spitting” across to us.

Bass David Morriss gave us something of that vocal energy, interestingly poetic-sounding and beautiful where I expected him to be darker and more sepulchral in “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth”. But he nicely “grew” the phrase “……have seen a great light” with an unerring sense of what the music ought to be doing, as with the more hushed tones of “And they that dwell”. The dramatic “Why do the nations” went splendidly also, with the figurations generating plenty of agitated bluster; and perhaps the brief moment that went awry in “The kings of the earth rise up” was due to the same unaccustomed “lurch” we all felt, of tumbling straight afterwards into the “Halleluiah” Chorus (one gets so used to another chorus “Let us break their bonds” coming beforehand – we were, in fact, so caught up by surprise that nobody on this occasion stood up!).  As for “The trumpet shall sound”, the introduction was full of expectancy and growing excitement, and, one or two “ensemble” moments notwithstanding, the interchanges between singer and trumpet-player were nimble and enlivening.

I enjoyed soprano Amelia Ryman’s bright, silvery tones throughout, celestial and sparkling at “And lo, the angel of the Lord”, and surviving some out-of-sync moments with the orchestra at “And suddenly there was” (the string players making amends with some beautifully hushed work at the end). The spirited, but difficult “Rejoice greatly” was negotiated confidently and securely (breathing an issue in places, here, with such long and florid vocal runs). And her entry during”He shall feed His flock” was a highlight, like an unveiling, an irradiating of the musical textures. Of course, the soprano’s big moment is “I know that my Redeemer liveth” – and we got a heartfelt rendition balancing poise with impulsiveness in places, which I liked – one sensed the words here really meant something, such as at “And though worms destroy this body”. A lovely ascent at “For now is Christ risen” capped off a pleasingly-wrought performance.

I’m sure many people feel as I do, that the year’s concert-going wouldn’t be complete without hearing a live performance of Messiah. By dint of the various performing editions and the possible combinations arising from these, let alone the difference between singers, instrumentalists and conductors, the work for me invariably emerges newly-minted from each encounter. My preference (not necessarily with all works, but this is one of them) would be to hear a performance in the evening – for me there’s always been something about the interaction of music performance and darkness that creates extra frisson (but I am having therapy!). Seriously, I thought this was a presentation with its own distinctions and set of ambiences, one which contained some excellent performances, and which readily conveyed to us the work’s on-going greatness.











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