Messiah with the NZSO – age cannot wither, nor custom stale….

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
MESSIAH (Handel)

Nicholas McGegan (conductor)
Anna Leese (soprano)
Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo-soprano)
Steve Davislim (tenor)
James Clayton (bass)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
NZSO Messiah Chorale
Mark W.Dorrell (chorusmaster)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 12th December, 2015

NZSO boss Chris Blake understandably waxed lyrical in a welcoming programme note over the orchestra’s espousal of a fourth consecutive year’s presentation of Messiah, this time round in the expert directorial hands of renowned Baroque exponent Nicholas McGegan.

In terms of audience response, the near sold-out house spoke for itself – and while Messiah seems to draw people in like no other, the presence of McGegan, star soprano Anna Leese, and a hand-picked choral group, the NZSO Messiah Chorale no less, would have in this instance fuelled plenty of extra interest.

Of course, the work itself is like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra – “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”, a state of things partly due to the music’s inherent perennial freshness, and partly to its Baroque origins. In keeping with the times, Handel and his composer contemporaries had an intensely pragmatic attitude towards music and its performance, one which put any ideas of posterity and its judgements far behind more immediate and practical concerns.

In the case of Messiah these concerns brought into being different versions of the work based on early performances in different locations and with different performers, hereby giving the music something approaching a schizoid pedigree. No single “authentic” version of Messiah exists, the composer both instigating and sanctioning many optional settings of the individual numbers, as well as re-ordering or even suppressing certain of these to suit different circumstances.

The Handel scholar Winton Dean underlined this point in no uncertain terms in a 1967 article in London’s  “The Musical TImes” discussing two recently-published editions of the work, stating, somewhat combatatively – “There is still plenty for scholars to fight over, and more than ever for conductors to decide for themselves – indeed, if they are not prepared to grapple with the problems presented by the score they ought not to conduct it.”

For this reason every separate performance of the work is something of a listening adventure (and the same goes for almost every recording). Surprises, delights and disappointments for listeners are thus inevitable components of these experiences, as each person waits for his or her “favourite” numbers. Many of the latter are, of course, guaranteed their place, and rightly so – but there are a goodly number whose presence in any given performance simply can’t be taken for granted – and surprises of this nature do occur.

One such surprise for me happened in this performance – the removal of the central section of the aria He was despised, sung in this case by a mezzo-soprano. I didn’t notice until afterwards that the text in the programme omitted the words from “He gave his back to the smiters” to the end, so that all we got was the deep-felt, meditative opening, one described by historian Charles Burney as having “the highest idea of excellence in pathetic expression or any English song with which I am acquainted”.

Of course, what normally heightens the pathos of this whole opening is the contrast with the central section and its jagged, insistent treatment accorded the words. Not, I fear, on this occasion, the opening being left to speak for itself. Another truncation (though one not quite so injurious) was in Part Three, which brought us a tad hastily to the final “Worthy is the Lamb” and its linked “Amen” chorus – options taken in other years such as the duet “O death, where is thy sting?”, the chorus “But thanks to God” and the aria, “If God be for us”  were not on this occasion used.

Conductor McGegan was certainly no slouch, driving the music along in appropriate places, achieving, for example, with the help of his soprano a wonderful frisson of orchestral excitement in the music leading up to the Heavenly Hosts singing “Glory to God”. For me there were one or two places he could have allowed a bit more rhythmic space for his choir to “point” their words – His yoke is easy, for example, whose quicker sections were, I felt, a bit smoothed out in effect. But, at one hour and fifty minutes’ playing-time, though it was, I think, the shortest Messiah I’ve ever attended, it was nevertheless a tribute to the sheer focus and concentration of the performers that the work retained its sense of grandeur and visionary sweep right through to the end.

Throughout the orchestral playing was terrific, the faster music tingling with tensile excitement at the strength and flexibility of the melodic lines, with the various counterpoints well served by their different voices. And the slower music to my ears floated and blended some lovely hues, for example in the gentle radiance of He shall feed His flock. Individual players distinguished themselves – trumpeter Michael Kirgan’s bright and shining The trumpet shall sound, and timpanist Larry Reese’s alert, detailed, and (in the Amen chorus’s final measures) resplendent contributions, to name but two of the stand-out examples.

The hand-picked NZSO Messiah Chorale (presumably a kind of one-off assemblage of some of the capital’s best voices) made a brilliant impression throughout, obviously reflecting the quality of their preparation with Mark Dorrell, until recently the Orpheus Choir’s Music Director. Though with fewer numbers than groups we sometimes get in the work, this choir put across the text with whatever quality was required for each sequence – energy, brilliance, warmth, reverence, or sheer grandeur – and the voices certainly weren’t spared by their conductor in places, whose tempi would have, in places, challenged their capabilities to the limit.

What struck me was the sheer focus of the sound throughout all sections, a quality which came to the fore most forcefully in places like the opening of Surely He hath borne our griefs, the opening declamations in themselves resembling scourge-blows upon Christ’s body, but registered just as tellingly in quieter moments such as the opening of Since by Man came death. In this way the different “characters” of the music emerged, underlining the work’s aforementioned capacity to continually surprise and delight.

Naturally, the four soloists have an integral part to play in this process – and each afforded pleasures of different kinds with their eager responses to the words and the beauties of their singing. If I say that I thought the voice of mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell seemed in places to struggle to convey enough body of tone to make her words really “live”, it’s no reflection on her actual voice and stage presence, which I enjoyed – I merely think that the low-ish tessitura of those particular numbers needs a “proper” alto voice to put them across with the force and focus the music requires. Interestingly enough, the decision not to perform the central section of He was despised  worked in her favour, as she was able to tackle those affecting opening declamations (some unaccompanied) with great feeling and presence, and not have to then “fight” to be heard over the orchestra in the “He gave his back” sequences.

Tenor Steve Davislim began with a sweetly-projected Comfort Ye, more lyrical than heroic at the outset, though his tones took on the required heft for the “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” sections. But I thought he really shone in places in the work’s Second Part, conveying pity and empathy in places like All they that see Him, and Thy rebuke hath broken His heart in stark contrast to the chorus’s brutal He trusted in God – wonderful, dramatic  stuff!  And I’ve sung bass James Clayton’s praises in this music before (though not in Middle C), and needs must do so again – he gave the impression of “owning” his music completely. I did think the music’s transition from darkness to light in For behold, darkness shall cover the earth was a little rushed under McGegan’s direction, and therefore slightly less of a visceral experience than was Why do the Nations? during which conductor, orchestra and singer nailed all of its energy and excitement, with skin and hair flying all over the place!

Wellington audiences have been fortunate in hearing sopranos of the calibre of Anna Leese and Madeleine Pierard in recent years in this work, doubly so when considering how different the experience of hearing each one is – which, of course, is how it should be! After the Pastoral Symphony, Anna Leese’s vocal purity was put to perfect use when evoking that first Christmas Night, with celestial frissons of radiant light and angelic singing scattered across the firmament. She then scintillated through the coloratura of Rejoice greatly before taking it in turns most effectively with Sally-Anne Russell to deliver the two-tiered He shall feed His flock/Come unto Him, each singer playing her part in the creation of an ambience of hypnotic beauty.

As for that ultimate declaration of faith and confidence I know that my Redeemer liveth, Anna Leese certainly delivered – the tones were ravishing, the words were crystal-clear, and the manner was assured and encouraging. In tandem with the splendidly-realised Halleluiah  the sequence generated a marvellous kind of aura of transcendence, which continued right to those apocalyptic final moments, featuring every voice, instrument and impulse at full stretch. And, of course, who would want it to be otherwise?

To sum up, it was a splendid demonstration of the power of music as a renewable force, one which all over again inspired performers to give of their best and listeners to connect with and appreciate their efforts – what a treasure, and what good fortune for all of us concerned!

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